Page last updated at 09:47 GMT, Thursday, 9 April 2009 10:47 UK

'My terror after knee-capping'

By Linda Pressly
The Report

"The big one shot me in the right leg, and cracked me in the back of the head with his gun. Then he held me down, and the other two took a shot each in my other leg."

Dissident republican supporters take to the streets
So-called punishment shootings are taking place in nationalist communities

Matthew and Silvia - not their real names - sit side by side in their living room as they describe the night three masked men burst in and targeted Matthew in a paramilitary-style shooting.

Silvia points to the wooden floor.

"You can see the bullet holes over there. And there's still a bullet in Matthew's leg.

"I thought they were going to shoot him dead. And anything could have gone wrong - my son could have got it, but they just didn't care. It's just a nightmare, something you wake up to every day."

The men were in and out of the house in two minutes.

Peak year

Matthew and Silvia believe dissident republicans ordered the attack after Matthew was accused of being a drug dealer, a charge he denies.

Punishment shootings by paramilitary groups have always been a feature of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

If you go to the police, you get a death threat
'Matthew', punishment shooting victim

In both loyalist and republican areas they have been used against alleged criminals, and as a way of controlling the community.

According to Police Service of Northern Ireland statistics, in the post-Good Friday era they rose to a high of 190 incidents in the year to April 2002, with two-thirds of those carried out by loyalist groups.

In the year 2007/2008, that figure had fallen to just seven attacks, five of them by republicans.

But in the last year there have been 20 recorded attacks. Eighteen of those have been in republican areas. Last week alone there were three reported attacks.

Jim Auld, a former republican prisoner and one of the leading lights of Community Restorative Justice Ireland, an organisation founded in the 1990s in response to punishment shootings, is worried.

Minority support

"The dissident republican groups want to show they're invaluable to the community. In overall terms those groups have very minimal support," he says.

Father Gary Donegan CP
Fr Gary Donegan is called as a mediator to stop so-called punishment shootings

"But if they are seen to be dealing with persistent offenders who're engaging in anti-social activities, the community sees that and by and large will support it."

A dissident republican group calling itself Oglaigh na hEireann has claimed responsibility for 15 recent punishment-style shootings.

Father Gary Donegan, a priest at the Holy Cross Church in north Belfast is often called on to negotiate by phone to stop punishment attacks.

Callers have claimed to be from Continuity IRA, the Real IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann.

Kidnap mediation

If potential victims in his parish are issued with a warning, then there is a chance Father Gary can intervene. But he has to wait until the gunmen make contact.

"Sometimes that happens through a phone call made to the monastery here, and they tell me an individual's under critical threat," he says.

Fr Gary has mediated in around two dozen cases in the last six months.

Matthew had no warning of the brutal attack that may have left him permanently disabled. Now he walks with a pronounced limp, the bones in his legs below the knees held together with metal pins.

Matthew, Silvia and their son are on medication - anti-depressants and sleeping pills. Matthew says he came close to committing suicide at Christmas time, and that the attack has ruined the family.

Sir Hugh Orde
These are the most difficult crimes to solve simply because of the nature of the crime, the brutality of it and indeed the fact that communities still sometimes don't feel confident in talking to the police service
Sir Hugh Orde, Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland

"It's turned the house upside down. I sleep with my wee boy every night. He won't go to bed till I go to bed," he adds.

Death threats

Although the police arrived quickly on the night of the shooting, no-one has been charged. But Matthew is also scared to talk to the police.

"If you go to the police, you get a death threat," he says.

Sir Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, believes his force can deal with this threat.

"These are the most difficult crimes to solve simply because of the nature of the crime, the brutality of it and indeed the fact that communities still sometimes don't feel confident in talking to the police service. Our job is to dismantle those groups," he says.

"You may not catch them for a punishment shooting but you can take them out for drug dealing, for organised crime, smuggling, all the other issues. So I am confident we are very effective at disrupting and arresting people who are linked to and engaged in that sort of activity."

Matthew does not share the Chief Constable's confidence, "The dissident republican groups are here. My legs are proof of that. And I'm from a republican family, so now they are turning on their own."

The Report was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 9 April at 2000 BST. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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