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Ulster families facing a grim exile

ANYWHERE ELSE in Britain the fight would be regarded as no more than an adolescent punch-up in the playground. But in Northern Ireland, it was enough to force a boy aged 15 into exile.

The boy was unlucky enough to pick a fight with the son of an influential republican. Within 24 hours - on 10 July - the boy's family were told he would have to leave or face certain death. According to the boy's family, he was no more than a "tearaway".

The news of his expulsion, which emerged yesterday, came in spite of the public revulsion over earlier ultimatums. While Conservative and Unionist politicians make capital out of this weekend's expulsion by the IRA of five young men, hundreds more are re-building their lives after being forced from their homes by paramilitaries on each side of the divide.

According to figures compiled by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Bureau, a voluntary organisation run by a former IRA member, 384 people have been exiled by the IRA and 372 by loyalist terror groups since the Good Friday Agreement in April of last year.

Some of the expulsions are astonishing in their ruthlessness. Children as young as 12 have been banished, in some cases simply for refusing to do what they were told by paramilitaries.

Since July alone, there have been 20 cases of people being exiled. On 5 August, loyalists cut the throat of a boy aged 17 because his father had been in a fight with a member of a paramilitary gang. The boy was ordered to leave east Belfast with his parents and their two other children.

On 21 July, a girl aged 20 from Armagh was ordered out simply because she had ended a relationship with a member of a republican paramilitary group. Others have been turned out of their homes for joyriding, owing money or simply for being in mixed Catholic-Protestant marriages.

Vincent McKenna, the director of the human rights bureau, said: "The politicians are making a lot of noise about these latest expulsions because it ties in well with Mo Mowlam's statement on the IRA ceasefire, but we get them all the time, hundreds of them. We have had children exiled for refusing to get off the streets when the paramilitaries tell them to. We have had young girls exiled for going out with the wrong boy and we have had whole families turned out of their homes because of some fracas with a member of Sinn Fein or the Progressive Unionist Party."

Once threatened, victims have no choice but to leave or face certain death. Mr McKenna's organisation helps to find them safe houses before moving them to Britain, where they are helped by charities and local authorities.

"It's devastating for them," he said. "They lose their home, their job, their friends and family and have to start all over again.

"And it will continue until Mo Mowlam declares punishment beatings, intimidation and expulsions as breaches of the ceasefire and removes those involved in them from the diplomatic process."

The true number of people exiled may never be known because many simply move out without telling the police. However, John Taylor, an Ulster Unionist MP, said he believes at least 500 Catholics and a similar number of Protestants may have been expelled this year alone.

The latest victims were told they had to leave in a message sent via their parish priest, Father Joseph Quinn, who was summoned before a group of IRA activists.

"I was confronted by armed and masked men who named these people and told me that the community was sick of them and their behaviour," said Fr Quinn. "They were very cold and matter of fact about it. They just made the threat and then dismissed me."

It is this impression, of a power unto itself issuing demands and threats to a frightened community, which Unionists say represents a breach of the ceasefire. And, even though it is happening on both sides of the divide, it is an impression that Ms Mowlam will find increasingly hard to ignore.

Ordered Out

People exiled since 30 June this year, the original deadline for a peace agreement, include:

July 6: A gang of four republican paramilitaries gave a west Belfast man in his twenties one day to leave Northern Ireland. A north Belfast couple were ordered to leave by loyalist paramilitaries.

July 8: A couple from south Armagh were told to leave with their two children by republicans because they were in a mixed marriage. A Catholic couple from Larne were ordered out by a loyalist gang.

July 9: Loyalists in east Belfast petrol bombed a Protestant family who refused to pay protection money, forcing the parents and their child to flee.

July 10: A man aged 21 from north Belfast was exiled because he owed money for drugs. A boy aged 15 from west Belfast was ordered out because he got into a fight at school with the son of a republican.

July 21: a woman aged 20 from Armagh was ordered out for ending a relationship with a republican paramilitary.

July 22: A couple from north Belfast were exiled by four republicans. A married couple and their daughter from east Belfast were exiled, reportedly for a drug dispute with loyalists.

July 23: A man aged 20 from west Belfast was ordered out by four republicans for joyriding. A woman aged 35 from east Belfast was exiled because she owed money to loyalists.

July 28: A loyalist gang ordered a south Armagh woman to leave immediately after calling for her husband, who was not at home.

July 31: A family of seven were exiled from west Belfast by republicans after the father fought in a Falls Road pub.

August 1: A family of five were exiled by loyalists in east Belfast because they owed money.

August 5: Loyalists cut the throat of a boy aged 17 because his father had fought a paramilitary gang member. He needed 63 stitches and was ordered to leave east Belfast with his his parents and their two other children.

August 6: A west Belfast couple and their child were ordered out by republicans.

August 7: A Catholic couple from Armagh were exiled when they refused to pay protection money to republicans. A family of four was exiled from west Belfast after a fight with a republican paramilitary.