Leona O'Neill: Brutal paramilitary attacks must be stopped once and for all

'Punishment' beatings and shootings were commonplace during the Troubles, to the extent that such paramilitary activities became 'normalised'. With punishment attacks against young people still taking place in 2021, we need to take a step back and ask why, writes Leona O'Neill...

'Punishment' beatings became the 'norm' during the Troubles

I REMEMBER the first time I stopped to think about paramilitary style attacks. They were a completely normal thing in our society when I was growing up, just something that happened.

When I was a teenager we spent a lot of time in my mother's home county of Donegal. The Troubles were raging back then, and I suppose living in what people might describe as a war zone made me kind of interesting to my Donegal relatives, who only ever saw Northern Ireland on television.

I remember a few young relatives and I having a conversation and I mentioned that someone had been "kneecapped" as if this was just an everyday thing, like going to the shop, or doing PE.

Asked to explain what it was, I told my young Donegal cousins that it was when the IRA blasted off your kneecaps if you did something wrong. As I looked around the gathered faces I saw horror and disgust, some disbelief. I think someone said they were going to puke.

I remember questioning if it was really normal after all to have masked paramilitaries policing our streets, not the actual police. I remember questioning if blowing off young people's kneecaps, scarring them for life both mentally and physically, was really the makings of a healthy society. And then thinking it must be, because no one really spoke out against it, apart from my dad.

It was just normal. At school someone's brother had been kneecapped at the weekend "for joyriding". Someone's dad had "been done" for drugs. There was a shame surrounding it. There were always the whispers of "he didn't get it for nothing".

Working as a reporter in west Belfast, I often covered 'punishment shootings'. They were so commonplace that they got sick nicknames. Someone who had been shot in the knees and elbows got what was described as a 'mixed grill', for example.

The victims of these attacks were de-humanised: they didn't matter, they were outcasts of society 'punished' by the 'defenders' of said communities. In truth, most of them were teenagers, growing up in one of the worst areas of social deprivation in Europe, with no hope, no prospects, easily accessible drugs, in the middle of a raging conflict and they were being policed by brutal thugs with guns and planks of wood with nails in them.

Later, covering the Derry beat after the Good Friday Agreement, paramilitary attacks, dropped as a method of community control by the IRA, were picked up by dissident republicans and other republican groups.

At least once a week I spent time out at a scene, spoke to people in the nearby houses about what they saw. I was always shocked by the attitudes I encountered. Most people felt the victim deserved the attack. Residents would list off the crimes they had allegedly committed. They would say they were glad the victim was taken off the streets, they were fed up with them.

Most of the victims were teenage boys. Sometimes a resident, who never wanted to be identified for fear of attack, said that they ran to the victim and tried to stem the blood flow with bath towels. I was glad to hear their voices, it restored my faith in humanity.

This all came to my mind last week when Father Martin Magill, parish priest from the Falls Road, highlighted that 40 people have been brutalised by paramilitaries since the start of the year.

I think people need to step back and look at this horrific practice with a cold eye. Why is this still happening in 2021? There are a lot of elements at play. Paramilitaries put themselves forward as saviours of the nationalist community, and erasing anti-social elements feeds into that.

Some communities are historically hostile to the police, and those notions have been reinforced by paramilitaries anxious to keep those communities controlled. It's a sick society we live in and one we all need to work on fixing unless we want to keep swirling around in these literally vicious circles.

We need to change the mindset on this normalisation of brutality. We need to rethink our attitudes to justice. We need to ensure we have a police force that the community feels they can call on. We need to stop the myth that these paramilitary thugs are protecting our communities.

This is abuse of our young people, pure and simple, and it needs a rounded effort to stamp it out.

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