Page last updated at 07:11 GMT, Friday, 27 November 2009

Has Northern Ireland left the past behind?

By Ruth McDonald
BBC Radio 4

Woman tarred and feathered in Londonderry
This woman was tarred and feathered for getting engaged to a soldier (Picture courtesy of Belfast Telegraph)

A young woman stands, head bowed, tied to a lamppost.

Her hair has been cut off and a black substance poured over her head.

Behind her are two people. One stares off into the distance, one walks by. Neither makes a move to help her.

That picture was taken in Londonderry at the very start of the Troubles in 1971.

The woman tied to the lamppost had been tarred and feathered because she was engaged to a soldier.

The IRA had warned her to break off the relationship, but she defied them.

She was then taken from her house by a group of women and publicly humiliated in front of her friends and neighbours.

Driving through the city with Eamon MacDermott, the echoes of the past can be heard in the present.

He points out the lamppost where that woman was tarred and feathered.

As he turns the corner, he shows the spot where a man was shot a couple of weeks ago.

He was just a young boy at the time, but he remembers the tarring and feathering.

Mr MacDermott is the son of a local doctor and works as a journalist in the city. He is also a former republican prisoner.

By the time of that tarring and feathering, 100 people had died in Northern Ireland's violent conflict.

"You have to try to see it in the context of the time," he said.

"People - while they might not even have supported that - they weren't going to interfere, they would have walked on."

But there is another point of view.

In many ways, we are still prisoners of the past
Eammon MacDermott

Raymond White, a former head of the RUC Special Branch, said tarring and feathering symbolises something far more sinister than just a type of de facto community justice.

"We are not talking here about an extension of neighbourhood watch, this was organised brutality.

"These people who were punished were selected out from the community and visited by up to 10 people quite often and beaten in their own homes, their relatives were witnesses to what was happening," he said.

Voices from the past still speak loudly in Northern Ireland.

Listening to the crackly tape recording of a woman speaking in the early 1970s, the fear and indignation in her voice rings out as she describes how her sister was taken away by the IRA and tarred and feathered.

Walls of silence

"They had tins of paint and bags of feathers, she's five months pregnant and her husband's in Armagh prison, there's nothing anyone can do," she said.

Her crime was refusing to store ammunition for the IRA in her home.

Even today, those who speak out face walls of silence.

Catherine McCartney passes round photographs of herself and her sisters. Every so often a famous face pops up.

"He was a lovely man," she says of Mikhail Gorbachev, who had asked to meet the McCartney women as they toured the world seeking justice for their brother, Robert, who was murdered by IRA members in 2005.

The sisters fought fiercely to bring their brother's killers to justice.

Nearly five years on, they have all moved out of the small republican area where they lived.

Growing up, she remembers the community control in her neighbourhood.

"Nobody spoke up against it," she said.

"You were brought up on the diet of justice, equality, freedom, freedom of opinion, freedom, freedom, freedom; and once we got rid of the British, we were all going to be ever so free.

"And then, people weren't free at all, even within their own areas.

"And that's not because of the British - that's because of the IRA."

Catherine is very rare in Northern Ireland - someone who stood up to the gatekeepers of the community.

In Londonderry, the gatekeepers are engaged in a fight for control.

There are a number of different paramilitary groups operating in Derry
Mr MacDermott says there are five paramilitary groups in the city.

One of them is a new group calling itself RAAD - Republican Action Against Drugs.

They claim to be a single-issue group, dedicated to targeting drug dealers.

But the kind of justice they dispense is rough and arbitrary.

Father Stephen McLoughlin, a parish priest in Derry, said paramilitaries have asked him to deliver messages to those they are targeting. He said this puts him in a difficult position.

Does he pass on the message and become a conduit or does he refuse - and live with the responsibility that if something happens to another person he has failed to alert them?

"In the last year or so these attacks have become more frequent," he says "and I wonder if that is an attempt by some of these shadowy groups to insinuate themselves into the local community - to appear as if they are trying to deal with these anti-social problems?

"I think there is an element of that involved."

Callers ring phone-in programmes in Northern Ireland to say they won't condemn those who target drug dealers.

There is still an appetite for this kind of rough justice.

"In many ways, we are still prisoners of the past here," Mr MacDermott says.

"People say whenever they used to riot in the early 1970s they were looked on as heroes and when they rioted in the 1990s they were looked upon as anti-social elements. Nobody controls that switch". And who is the authority? "Whoever has the strongest muscle".

Tarred and Feathered will be on Radio 4 FM at 1330 GMT on Sunday 29 November.

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