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Monday, January 25, 1999 Published at 15:02 GMT

Punishment beatings: A grip of fear

A long time on crutches: One of the latest victims of the beatings

By BBC Ireland Correspondent Denis Murray

So-called punishment beatings and shootings have been an integral part of the troubles in Northern Ireland for decades.

Thousands of people, mostly young men, have suffered horrendous injuries at the hands of masked men wielding baseball bats, pick-axes, hammers, and, of course, in many cases, guns.

[ image:  ]
Invariably, the attacks are carried out by gangs who take on individuals. Often the motive can be a personal grudge, or some slight, real or imagined - though the paramilitary groups who carry them out often say they are "punishments" against "anti-social" elements.

Indeed, there is an argument that the attacks are the result of a breakdown in law and order caused by The Troubles. In some parts of Northern Ireland, especially working class areas of Belfast, communities do not trust, even hate, the police.

And so, they turn to the paramilitaries to "get something done" about petty criminals, like joyriders. It is also true, nonetheless, that the paramilitary groups are not averse to be seen in such a role, and it heightens the atmosphere of fear in local communities, that the hard men really are hard, and are not to be messed with.

Alternative action

The problem is such that one group, Greater Shankill Alternatives, is already trying, in that Protestant and Loyalist heartland of Belfast, to produce what their title suggests - an alternative.

[ image: Inflicting pain: Paramilitary
Inflicting pain: Paramilitary "justice"
They say that the lack of trust with the police is very real, and they offer community service to local youngsters who have comitted petty crime, who own up to it and are prepared to make reparations to their victims, instead of going through the courts - or receiving summary "justice" at the hands of the paramilitaries.

The attacks are vicious - the beatings are horrendous, and some of the shootings have been fatal. The so-called kneecapping isn't really that - only in a minority of cases is the kneecap actually shattered. In many more cases, the gunshot is fired close to the back of the leg, into the fleshy part of the thigh.

The danger here is that many victims have major arteries severed. There were so many such injuries that in the late 1970s and early 80s, surgeons at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital developed a special treatment to cope with arterial damage to kneecap victims.

Escalation in attacks

Why the punishments are now being highlighted is the scale of the recent wave of them (according to the RUC, already this year there have been nine shootings and 18 assaults).

It is also true that the attacks are attracting more attention because the worst of the rest of the troubles has stopped - if the murder campaigns and bombings are not going on, then so-called punishments move much higher up the political and public agenda.

[ image: Attacks more visible since the end of the worst violence]
Attacks more visible since the end of the worst violence
There have also been calls recently for the release of paramilitary prisoners to end until the groups stop the violence. Those releases are a key element of the Good Friday Agreement - and it is being pointed out that the violence is being carried out by groups whose political representatives signed up to that agreement, which committed them to peaceful and democratic methods only.

It is all this which has led the Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlem to have talks with the three biggest parties linked to the paramilitaries - the loyalist UDP and PUP, and Sinn Fein.

All three parties say they have argued as forcefully as they can against the attacks.

It is doubtful that the prisoner releases will be halted, but the meetings are a clear sign of the government's abhorrence at the attacks, and of their concern that groups who say they have ceasefires are still using violence, including the gun, in communities where the grip of fear is still as real as ever.

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