In a recent conversation with journalist Brian Rowan about the ‘societal shrug’ around the plethora of brutal beatings and shootings carried out by so-called ‘paramilitary’ organisations against members of their communities, he suggested to me that there is also a political shrug. That actors from the UK and Irish Governments to the local political parties deliberately didn’t make this violence part of the negotiations and mechanisms of the peace process. The phenomenon was viewed as ‘housekeeping’ – and not seen as a threat to the peace process because it was intra – not inter-community violence.
That has helped to create a culture where an issue that is deeply shocking to any outside observer is quietly tolerated – even enabled – in the interests of the wider ‘peace’. Yet for the groups who carry out these violent and sadistic assaults they are their key mechanism of control. They send out a message that the organisation is in control of the area, and should not be challenged. Until communities can see better ways of dealing with local issues, it will be impossible to rid our society of these armed and violent criminals who claim to have a political ’cause’.
For me this is an extremely costly omission that is coming back to bite us. As I write, 353 people (that we know of) have been subjected to violent beatings and shootings to the main joints since the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed. Around half are young people (under 25 years of age) and many were already broken, living in extreme poverty and brushed aside by the State. While the number of these assaults was at its lowest (68) in 2018 since 2013, the figures are on the rise again – and there is zero room for complacency.
Ironic as it may seem, the same people (mostly young men) who are victims of these attacks are often also groomed by these groups into membership and criminality for the benefit of these criminal groups. They convince the communities in which they operate that they are ‘dealing’ with criminality and ‘anti-social behaviour’ (a careless catch-all phrase also used loosely by the State), when the very existence of these groups and their life-sucking impact on these areas is the most anti-social aspect of the entire phenomenon.
In recent months we have seen how these groups exploit local tensions (particularly around bonfires in East and North Belfast) to stir up children and young adults – creating fodder for their political ends and helping them to identify who they can group for greater involvement. These are the classic tools of radicalisers the world over – whether it is for Da’esh, the far right, criminal gangs or other ’causes’. What is somewhat shocking is that we struggle to see this as grooming and radicalisation and we don’t have the tools to deal with it and keep our children and young people safe.
The United Nations Committee Against Torture recently highlighted its concerns about this issue in its report – stating:
42. The Committee reiterates its concern at reports that paramilitary groups continue to function as alternative authorities in certain areas of Northern Ireland, inflicting punishments resulting in severe pain and suffering against people alleged to have committed criminal offenses. The Committee notes with particular concern the delegation’s statement that the government is aware of eight assaults on children under the age of 18, including two in which children were shot, committed by members of paramilitary groups between February 2017 and February 2019. While taking note of the State party’s efforts to identify and provide support to young people at risk of involvement in paramilitarism, the Committee is also concerned at reports that these groups continue to recruit children (art. 16).
They went on to recommend that:
43. The State party should:
(a) Strengthen its efforts to promptly and effectively investigate cases of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland, including against children, ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, and ensure that victims have access to effective protection and obtain redress;
(b) Intensify its efforts to prevent the recruitment of children by paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland.
The ‘State party’ in question is the British Government. Particularly given the long absence of any local administration, the UK Government has a particular responsibility to step up. Given the resources that it is pouring into a host of strategies to prevent radicalisation and engage with those at risk of radicalisation in England it seems strange that it has not acted on this issue. Let us hope that this new UN Report has added pressure – it needs to come from as many sources as possible.
Before anyone points it out – I know that the situation in Northern Ireland is hugely different and complex given the many unresolved issues around the recent conflict and attitudes to the violence of the past. Still, children are children. The State and its agencies have a duty to protect them. Thankfully we have woken up to the scourge of child sexual abuse and have much better systems to protect those vulnerable to it – but we don’t seem to apply the same standards or procedures to those vulnerable to violent exploitation and radicalisation. Yet two children were savagely beaten with crowbars in Derry just a few weeks ago, and there was very little attention paid to it.
We need a different approach here – but who is putting in the work to develop it? There are a number of initiatives taking place under the Tackling Paramilitarism Programme with women, young people and communities. The initial data since the ‘Ending the Harm’ campaign ran on local media is encouraging. The Children’s Commissioner and other officials are working away behind the scenes to address some of the complexities of this wicked problem. However, too many people still left hanging. There is still no clear State response to a person under threat – other than helping to deliver that threat – even when they are a child.
The political leadership on this issue is virtually non-existent. Half-hearted condemnations are issued from time to time in the nationalist family – and they are virtually non-existent in the loyalist family (with the notable exception of Dr John Kyle of the PUP). The Alliance Party have consistently spoken out, but have little or no influence in the neighbourhoods where this is happening. This seems to indicate either a resignation among politicians that we are ‘stuck’ with this problem – or maybe even a fear about upsetting those groups. Asking young people and women in these areas to tackle this issue is frankly immoral without some clear leadership from politicians and civil society leaders. However this is usually where the real work is done – as it was for decades in the field of community relations. People in vulnerable situations took the biggest risks to build peace and keep their communities safe.
Time forsome new thinking and some real leadership. Is it too much to ask that we care when children are brutalised and groomed? In the absence of functioning politics – could religious or business leaders not take up this mantle? Are we really not better than this?