Leona O'Neill: Punishment beatings are a cancer on society

They were a fixture of the Troubles and they are still happening today, some 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement. Punishment beatings will continue to be meted out to wayward youths unless society demands that they stop, writes Leona O'Neill

Punishment beatings have become an accepted fact of life in the north

SOCIETY in Northern Ireland has some serious issues and we have been failed time and time again by those whose job it was to make it better.

Perhaps my view is tainted somewhat by the job I do. I spend an awful lot of time concerning myself with the underbelly of my city, Derry, and indeed cities across the north and as a result I perhaps spend more time in courts and on the streets than most people.

And what I see genuinely unnerves me, and has done for a number of years. I have seen far too many of our young people being lost to suicide in Northern Ireland. There have been far too many souls lost to drugs. I have seen young people being sucked into the violence and hatred that should have been solely confined to our history books. I have sat on the press benches of courts as young people are led away to live what should be the best years of their lives behind bars.

Paramilitary-style attacks have sadly been normalised in this sick society of ours. Individuals, some as young as 16-years-old, being beaten with crowbars, baseball bats and other weapons and often times shot, are just another news bulletin before people move on. Social media is flooded with comments that display absolutely no sympathy for the victims of these attacks.

This is a complex issue. As with everything in Northern Ireland, it is in no way black and white. People who commit crimes need to be dealt with by the law of the land, not vigilantes.

But when I'm talking to those who hear or witness these attacks in their street they often tell me, sometimes as the victim is still bleeding from gunshot wounds in the back of an ambulance before them, that the person "deserved it", that they have "a criminal record as long as their arm", that "they get a slap on the wrist in the courts, so this is the only option".

The victims of these attacks, as I often find out in the wake of the incidents, are usually from very troubled backgrounds, have drug and addiction issues, have little hope or support in their lives and have totally lost their way.

I've heard their stories and, like a lot of their alleged criminal activities, none of it is particularly pretty. They most certainly need dealt with to put them back on the right track and ensure they are adding something to society – but a bullet or baseball bat won't do anything to help that. It will only make the negative cycle spin at a more frantic pace.

People in the grip of serious addiction generally neither know nor care they are going to be shot. People with absolutely nothing to lose care not a jot for their future, past their next hit.

People in the community who are being plagued by antisocial elements – whether you care to believe it or not – often times welcome the type of brutal justice that sees those allegedly behind break-ins, joyriding, drug dealing etc left lying bleeding in an alley.

They think this because they also think the police and courts are not doing their jobs and that those intent on ruining their communities through antisocial activities are given free reign to do so.

The police would argue that they need the community's help in identifying antisocial culprits in order to arrest and charge them. They are constantly appealing for information from the public. But many in the nationalist community do not work with the police. Therefore, vigilantes are left to fill a big police-shaped void.

It's no surprise that a majority of so-called 'punishment beatings' and shootings happen in nationalist areas. And so the cycle goes on and on, as if it's completely normal – as if it's one of our 'Northern Ireland quirks', alongside potato bread, crisp baps and bonfires.

There is a cancer at the core of our society that has rotted our communities for years and it has many different dimensions revolving around the community, the police, paramilitaries and peace, as well as having social and economic aspects. Many may have thought it was in remission, but it has come back again and is doing untold damage.

But yet we will all sit back, like we always do here in Northern Ireland, and just let it happen.

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