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Despite the IRA’s declaration of a ceasefire, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the Provos, like their Loyalist counterparts, are still engaging in “punishment attacks” and in the issuing of expulsion orders. Report: Liam Fay. Pics: Alan O’Connor
Liam Fay, 05 Oct 1994
On the morning of Sunday, September 4th, four days after the IRA’s declaration of a ceasefire, five hooded and armed men raided a number of houses in the staunchly republican Markets area of South Belfast. During these raids, they abducted a group of young men suspected of joyriding, and took them away for interrogation.
Four of the youths were eventually set free but the fifth, an 18 year old, was not. He was ordered to lie on the ground while the gang systematically smashed his arms, wrists and fingers with iron bars and claw hammers. The victim was later taken to hospital where he received sixteen stitches and treatment for a broken arm.
Incidents such as this are far from unique in Northern Ireland. Paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian divide have long claimed the right to “police” their own communities and to mete out such brutal punishment when and where they deem it appropriate. Along with beatings and kneecappings, nationalist and loyalist “punishment squads” also issue regular expulsion orders to people whom they dub “undesirables,” insisting that they leave Northern Ireland for good within 48 hours or else face death. Last year alone, there were reports of 67 individual expulsion cases, among these were 12 entire families. By the very nature of what’s involved, however, this figure is seen as only a small proportion of the real total.
Despite the IRA’s declaration of a complete cessation of military operations, a series of recent assaults, particularly in Belfast and Armagh, confirm the widely held belief that the Provos have no intention of relinquishing their role as a “community police force.”
According to Families Against Intimidation and Terror (FAIT), the continuing threat of “punishment attacks” and the refusal to allow exiles to return home provides conclusive proof that the IRA have not renounced the use of violence.
“We have to be hopeful in relation to the fact that they are not killing people anymore but we want them to go all the way,” says Henry Robinson, an anti-intimidation worker with FAIT. “The IRA are actively going about telling people who they have forced out of the country not to return home. Relatives have gone to Sinn Fein and to people who are known to be in the IRA and the message is the same. This is at variance with the IRA statement of August 31st. When people are forced out, they get a typed note from the IRA saying that they’ve got 48 hours to leave the country or else direct military action will be taken against them. Under what basis does that threat now exist if the August 31st statement is to be taken at face value. We’re asking Mr. Adams to explain this.
“Mr. Adams has regained his freedom of movement in the United States and we’re asking him to afford the same right to the Irishmen and Irishwomen who have been forced out of their homes.”
FAIT was established in August, 1990, by a woman from Downpatrick called Nancy Greacy whose son was kneecapped by the Provos after he had gotten involved in an altercation with a convicted IRA bomber. The dispute had nothing at all to do with political matters but the aggrieved Provo still felt justified in calling on the full force of his paramilitary connections to settle the score. This kind of thing, say FAIT, is par for the course.
While the stated line from both nationalist and loyalist paramilitaries is that they only carry out attacks on criminals and people guilty of what they term “anti-social behaviour,” the reality is that personal grievances are often the real motivation for such actions.
“Some of those mutilated or exiled are indeed petty criminals,” insists Henry Robinson. “Every society has petty criminals who must be dealt with within the law but these are people who’ve been afforded no trial, no jury, no solicitor, no nothing. A lot of people are forced out for reasons that have nothing to do with crime. Some are exiled because of domestic disputes. A relationship goes sour and one party has access to paramilitaries so the other is threatened or even killed. We have numerous examples of that. We have businessmen on our books who’ve been forced out of Northern Ireland by both sets of paramilitaries. Basically, if you get on the wrong side of a paramilitary, for whatever reason, you can find yourself becoming a target.”
Since the announcement of the IRA ceasefire, FAIT have begun monitoring the level of “punishment attacks” in nationalist areas. To date, they are aware of at least four specific assaults since September 1st though they suspect that there have been others. They have also opened a register of people who’ve been expelled by republican and loyalist paramilitaries in an attempt to identify the number of those living in enforced exile and to help organise a campaign for their return.
“The fact is that prior to the ceasefire the majority of abuses by the IRA side were directed against their own community, not against the police or the army,” Robinson asserts.
FAIT claim to have won a broad base of support for their campaign, from within all sides and communities. They have also enlisted to their ranks a number of former paramilitaries, among them Henry Robinson himself.
“I used to be a member of the Official IRA,” he explains. “I carried out one of these mutilations in 1981 as part of a feud that was going on at the time. For that, I went to jail. I got five years but I later got 50% remission. Inside, I seen other young people from both backgrounds whose lives were being wasted away. It doesn’t take you too long to see what you’ve been engaged in is getting you nowhere. When you join paramilitary groups you think you’re taking a short cut to things but what you’re engaged in is abusing people’s human rights. I rejected violence and, after my two-and-a-half years, I came out and went to college. I got involved with FAIT because I felt I wanted to give something back.
“There are other former paramilitaries in this organisation and I think that if people do reject violence then no doors should be shut. They will have something to offer.”
As you might expect, FAIT are not a universally popular group in Northern Ireland. They are reviled by paramilitaries on both sides, and the lives of those involved in the organisation are routinely threatened. On the morning that I stopped by their premises in High Street, Belfast, they had just received a phone call from a man claiming to represent the South Belfast (Loyalist) Military Command who declared that “the people of FAIT will suffer” if they don’t immediately stop their campaign.
“We take all the paramilitaries seriously,” says Robinson. “It’s not the Vincent De Paul we’re engaged in. We’re confronting the white heat of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, both nationalist and loyalist death squads.”
Beyond the immediate paramilitary groups themselves, however, FAIT are also viewed with considerable suspicion by many ordinary citizens, especially within the republican community. The rationale for this is the belief that as long as nationalists are unable to place total confidence in the RUC then, bad and all as they may be, the Provos are the only police force they’ve got. Henry Robinson is contemptuously dismissive of this attitude.
“That’s absolute nonsense,” he proclaims. “The facts are that the clean-up rate of crime in West Belfast is 31%. The clean-up rate in North Belfast is 35%. The clean-up rate for Northern Ireland is 36%. In England and Wales, it’s 25%. So, in one of the most difficult areas to police in Western Europe, the rate is six points higher. This is not about paramilitaries taking action because the police won’t take action. This is simply about control and power. It’s about controlling neighbourhoods and controlling ghettos.
“These abuses of human rights are carried out against working class people. The IRA is not up on the Malone Road, in the middle class areas of Belfast, dragging out bankers who’ve been found guilty of fraud and shooting them in the legs or beating them with baseball bats. They’re not out attacking white collar crime. This is about domination of ghettos so they can have a base to operate out of.”
But you don’t have to spend very long in a place like West Belfast, for instance, to find that many people in the ghettos do support the Provo’s involvement in “punishment attacks”?
“There are indeed people within ghetto areas, Protestant and Catholic, who support these abuses of human rights and these mutilations,” Robinson replies. “But there were people in Alabama in the ’60s who supported blacks being hung from trees. I don’t care if there’s 500 or 5,000 who think that these mutilations are right, there is no majority in favour of human rights abuses anywhere.”
One charge commonly levelled against FAIT is that they are “a British front” committed to besmirching primarily the IRA’s good name as protectors of their community. The fact that the group has been in receipt of financial assistance from the UK government has only added further fuel to this (surprisingly widespread) perception.
“We are currently not in receipt of any money,” insists Robinson. “But we were getting £30,000 a year from the Community Relations Unit, a government body. It’s insignificant, it’s not enough. None of us are paid any wages. All our money goes on telephone bills, transport etc. etc. The IRA and Sinn Fein say we’re a government front but I can show you a list of about 30 groups who receive money from the same source and there’s gotta be 10 Irish language groups in there. If there’s anything tainted about that money then they’re tainted as well. We’d rather receive tax-payers’ money than money from bank robberies or extortion or swindling.”
It all depends on who you talk to, of course, but you don’t have to search too hard in nationalist Belfast to find men and women who will enthusiatically endorse the tactics adopted by the Provos to tackle problems like, say, joyriding or burglary. Supporters will tell you with grins on their faces that yeah, there was one mugging here back in the ’70s but the “Provos shot the mugger and there hasn’t been a mugging since.”
Meanwhile, those of us in the Republic who could be inclined to dismiss this kind of rough justice as yet another by-product of a long and dirty war might be interested in what one man with tight republican connections identified as the South’s greatest failing.
“Ye’re too soft down in the South,” he proclaimed. “Ye’re too soft down there in Dublin. The Provos would never have allowed heroin in the way ye allowed it in down there. They wouldn’t have let the crime get out of hand the way ye did. They wouldn’t have let joyriding get out of hand. Ye’re too soft. Wait till there’s a united Ireland. We’ll soon sort ye out.”