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Paramilitary punishment attacks return to prominence

On the 16th September of this year, fivepeople were taken to hospital after shots were fired at a house in the LagmoreAvenue area of West Belfast. Then, on the 10th Octobera man was shot in both legs in West Belfast. On the 29th October aman in his fifties was beaten with crowbars during a paramilitary-style gangattack in East Belfast. Finally, in probably the most severe example, a mansuffered horrific leg injuries when fired upon with a shotgun in a bookmaker’sestablishment in the Meenan Square area of Derry.

These are just a few examples of violence perpetrated byparamilitaries on members of their own community in the last few months. Theyshare similar attributes such as an emphasis on injuring the legs of victimsand a reason for the attack is normally provided stating some form ofantisocial behaviour as justification. These attacks also span ethnicboundaries, as both unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland haveexperienced resurgence in punishment violence in recent times.

There are, however, important differences both in thecauses of punishment violence and the manner in which communities are reactingto its prevalence. In predominantly protestant/loyalist areas, paramilitariesperiodically use punishment violence against members of their own communitieseither in an effort to achieve and maintain social control, to support theirinvolvement in crime, or to secure territory from competing loyalist groups. Punishmentviolence in loyalist communities tends to be tolerated to a greater extent thanattacks by republican paramilitaries. This can be explained by the greaterpressure placed upon republicans that originates from their presence in the newpolitical dispensation. The extent to which loyalist paramilitaries have beenunder less political pressure to cease punishment attacks is also matched bythe muted response of the media, and to a lesser extent, the reaction of some communitygroups in relation to incidences of punishment violence in protestant/loyalistareas.

In predominantly catholic/nationalist communities, theincrease in punishment violence is connected to an upsurge in the activities ofdissident republican groups. Many commentators such as Chief Constable HughOrde, believe this increase is linked to events such as the recent paralysis ofthe Northern Ireland Assembly and stagnation in the proposed bid to devolvepolicing and justice powers to Northern Ireland.  Others, such as Henry McDonald writing in theGuardian, believe Hugh Orde’s view to be over simplistic in its conception ofrepublicanism. Instead, McDonald argues that those who have been signing up todissident groups are motivated by the same ideologies that fuelled the earlyyears of the conflict:

“Although this foundational ideology has beenseverely weakened by decades of partition and the changing nature of Irishsociety, particularly in the south, it still exists and remains attractive to apotentially violent minority of disaffected northern nationalist youth.”

One area, in which dissident groups can appear strong inthe eyes of their community, is by using punishment attacks as a rapid responseto crime and disorder. Attacks will often result in horrific injury forvictims, and evidence of an offence is normally reported by word of mouth,ensuring the possibility of mistaken identity or hidden agendas contributing toan innocent person being subjected to violence. The prospect of fast,retributive justice remains popular to some in communities that have grownaccustomed to violence as a solution to a lack of effective community policingthroughout the conflict

In the Colin area of West Belfast the resurgence inpunishment violence has led to a coalition of community workers, politicalparties and the local clergy joining forces to condemn the attacks and call fortheir cessation. The group argue that there is no support within the vastmajority of the community for punishment attacks and it has been shown in thepast that violence has no effect on levels of anti-social behaviour. This, aview supported by the two acting community-based restorative justice groups inNorthern Ireland, both of which, originated as a viable alternative topunishment violence at a time when attacks were endemic.

Community Restorative Justice (CRJ) (in nationalistcommunities) and Northern Ireland Alternatives (NIA) (in loyalist communities)argue strongly that the only way to tackle issues such as anti-social behaviouris through a process of putting the community at the heart of the criminaljustice system, empowering the community in a manner which gives them a voicein how these difficult issues can be tackled. The groups urge members of thecommunity to trust in their human rights based approach to tackling crime andantisocial behaviour rather than taking the destructive path of fuelling furtherpunishment violence.

As a proactive community organisation, CRJ take the issueof community a step further. They believe that community justice is only onepiece of the jigsaw that needs to be completed in order to empower communitiesenough to make paramilitary violence a thing of the past. The organisationlobbies the various statutory agencies to ensure that housing is of an adequatestandard, the community is a safe place to live in and young people from themost deprived backgrounds get a good education. Victims of crime in nationalistcommunities are encouraged to report offences to the police, enabling aproactive relationship which ensures the police are held accountable for crime.These measures are an important contributionto the regeneration of communities where decades of conflict have left a legacyof unemployment, poverty, ill health and lack of self-esteem.

It has long been accepted that paramilitary violence hasa detrimental effect on community development and confidence. By supporting thework of groups that are attempting to embrace human rights and empowercommunities, the people of Northern Ireland can play their part in removing thefactors that contribute to a disaffected minority feeling the need to turn toparamilitary violence. Only then can we truly see an end to punishmentviolence.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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