The rise in punishment beatings in Derry serve as a warning that the road to peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland is a long and uncertain one.
The Guardian carried a disturbing report yesterday claiming 85 young men in Derry have been shot in punishment attacks over the past year by the vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD).
It also reports up to 200 men have been forced to flee the city in fear of such attacks, quoting Derry-based writer John Lindsay who has written about the issue.
He says that:
“On average there are about four young men being forced out of the city by RAAD and other vigilante groups per week.
“They are going to places as diverse as Belfast, Armagh, Dublin and of course England, anywhere where they have friends or relatives to flee to. And they are told if they don’t leave they will be shot or even killed.”
Such attacks are an echo of a past where groups like the Provisional IRA kept control of republican communities through summary ‘justice’ for what were invariably called “anti-social activities” such as joy-riding, theft and drug dealing.
But for all their obvious brutality, punishment attacks – which ranged from beatings to knee-cappings – found a measure of support in these tightly-knit communities. This is reflected by the startling news that some of these latest punishments have been by appointment, with family members accompanying the victims to their fate.
This sounds bewildering; however, it is perhaps not as surprising as it sounds. Republican groups long served as a militia police force given the reluctance of Catholics to complain to what they saw as the sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary.
This time around the motivation of groups like RAAD is different – more overtly political – and they are mainly comprised of disillusioned republicans who reject Sinn Fein’s political direction and see the party “selling out” cherished beliefs. They are seeking to build a powerbase within these staunch republican communities, often under the nose of Sinn Fein.
• Derry to be first British culture capital 16 Jul 2010
But as Henry McDonald’s piece in the Guardian suggests, not all RAAD members are easily dismissed as The Usual Suspects.
“…ex-Provisional IRA members who back the peace process but take-up the gun against members of their own communities accused of anti-social activities.”
This shows the flank of mainstream republicanism remains fluid, with the enduring risk of losing members to dissident groups. The existence of such groups is a deliberate provocation to mainstream republican leaders.
Hence the unequivocal reaction from Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness. The former IRA commander in Derry senses an attack on his personal authority in his own political backyard.
He yesterday labelled RAAD “the new oppressors of the people of Derry”, saying:
“I think it is quite obvious the community is beginning to rise up against this [punishment beatings] and as a result of that it is quite clear that RAAD are about to make the biggest mistake of their lives. They are about to bite off more than they can chew because if the community in Derry turns against you then you are going absolutely nowhere.
“And I think they (RAAD) do need to be going somewhere and they need to be going to prison. And I would hope as a result of the rise in opposition to the activities of RAAD that people will come forward to give all the information they have about this group.”
McGuinness famously commanded an IRA campaign in the city that resulted in Derry looking “as though it had been bombed from the air”. For him to be so emphatic against former comrades underlines how resolute he now is in upholding the exclusively political direction at the heart of modern republicanism.
Derry is, of course, set to become the UK’s first Capital of Culture next year. Welcome though the accolade is, it does little to diminish the city’s appalling legacy of social and economic problems. For instance, the Foyle constituency (which is centred on Derry) has the sixth highest unemployment rate in the UK, running at 8.3 per cent – nearly double what is was five years ago – affecting all age groups.
More broadly, the lingering presence of paramilitary justice and groups like RAAD reflects the reality that the material benefits of peace have not filtered down to the sections of Northern Irish society who have known only hardship. Hence the symbolic dissident bomb attack on the Capital of Culture team’s offices last October.
This bleak episode should not detract from what has been achieved, but instead serve as a warning that the road to peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland is a long and uncertain one.