'They Shoot Children Don't They?: An Analysis of the Age and Gender of Victims of Paramilitary "Punishments" in Northern Ireland' by Prof. Liam Kennedy (2001)
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The following article has been contributed by Professor Liam Kennedy, School of Modern History, Queen’s University, Belfast. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This article is copyright (© 2001) of Professor Liam Kennedy and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.
AN ANALYSIS OF THE AGE AND GENDER OF VICTIMS
PROFESSOR LIAM KENNEDY
A REPORT PREPARED FOR THE NORTHERN IRELAND COMMITTEE AGAINST TERROR (NICAT) AND THE NORTHERN IRELAND AFFAIRS COMMITTEE OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
"One of them pulled an iron bar from inside a jacket and hit him across the face." This was the opening blow of a "punishment" attack on a 15 year old child. The beating, which involved five masked men believed to be members of the Provisional IRA, took place in a home in the strongly nationalist New Lodge area of north Belfast on Sunday, 11 March 2001. The boy, who has special needs and admits to juvenile delinquency, was taken to the bedroom where he was struck with iron bars for twenty minutes. The blows were mainly to his head and upper body. His jaw was fractured during the attack. Traumatised, disfigured and barely able to speak, he was taken to hospital. Because his mother voiced her outrage and despair, the name of the boy, George McWilliams, featured momentarily in the columns of the nationalist Irish News (see report, 12 March 2001).
Earlier this year up to ten masked men, carrying guns and batons, burst into a home on a housing estate in Belfast. Their target was a 16-year old boy with a reported IQ of 45. Gerard had a troubled history, including severe depression since he had been raped as a child by a relative. When his mother tried to protect him from the intruders, she was also struck and called a "fucking bitch". The local administrators of justice then forced Gerard upstairs to the bathroom and, in the words of his mother: "I could hear him screaming from in there. After that they dragged him outside to the alleyway. I went into the bathroom and saw blood everywhere; after that I passed out". (See report in the Observer, 7 January 2001.)
Age and "Punishment"
Cases of paramilitary child abuse are common occurrences in Belfast, and in some other parts of Northern Ireland. Dr Lawrence Rocke, senior consultant surgeon in the accident and emergency department of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast says that the youngest victim of a "punishment" beating he has treated was just 14. But many others were only a year or two older. "It beggars belief how people can set out to cause pain and hurt of the terrible type we see in here so often." (See report in the Times, 18 September, 1999.)
Table 1 below, based on data supplied by the Central Statistics Unit of the RUC, gives a breakdown by age of the victims of (recorded) paramilitary shootings in Northern Ireland during the last dozen years.
Most victims of "punishment" shootings were men in their twenties, accounting for just over half of all victims within loyalist and republican communities. But it is noticeable that a substantial minority were less than 20 years of age. Although loyalists were responsible overall for more shootings than republicans (636 cases as against 496), a majority of the young victims "took the republican bullet". Within nationalist communities some 30% of all victims were less than twenty years of age. The corresponding figure for loyalists was 19%, a level more than one-third lower.
Does this pattern repeat itself when we come to look at punishment assaults? There is a difference in the sense that republican groups were responsible for more assaults generally than their loyalist counterparts, though the difference is not great (769 instances as against 737). More importantly, republican vigilantes, primarily the Provisional IRA, continued to select in favour of younger victims. Of the 769 nationalists assaulted or mutilated by republicans, 30% were under the age of twenty (an identical proportion to that for "knee-cappings" and other forms of shooting). This is also well above the level found in loyalist-controlled areas.
Nonetheless, too much should not be made of the differences between loyalist and republican practices, in terms of the age profile of their victims. The ugly common denominator is that both terrorise large numbers of very young people. I cannot say if this age bias also applies to the expulsion of people from their home areas, but it would not be surprising if this was the case.
Children & "Punishment"
Just how young were some of the victims? We can, in fact, get a more detailed picture of the ages of victims from figures released recently by the Central Statistics Unit of the RUC. This information is presented in Tables 3 & 4. It will come as a shock to many, even to well-informed commentators on Northern Ireland, that during the 1990s loyalist paramilitaries shot and intentionally wounded 36 youths aged 17 years or younger. In a display of parity of "punishment", Republicans matched this haul with an equal number of victims from within their own community.
Even larger numbers of youths were subjected to assaults of the kind undergone by the 15 year-old George McWilliams, mentioned earlier. Loyalists handed out savage beatings to 78 children and juveniles, while republicans added a further 111 casualties to the toll of human and family misery. Consistent with the earlier analysis, children and adolescents in nationalist areas were more likely to be the object of paramilitary abuse than is the case in loyalist communities.
Gender & "Punishment"
It is overwhelmingly the case that males, usually from working class backgrounds, were the targets of the paramilitary "justice" system. Still, gender alone is not a safeguard against attack. There were two recorded cases of shootings of women by loyalists during the 1990s and none by republicans. It may be recalled also that one of the most horrifying murders during the course of the "Troubles" was that of a widow and mother of ten children, Jean McConville. She was abducted and murdered after she offered assistance to a British soldier, wounded outside her home (see Seamus McKendry, Disappeared: The Search for Jean McConville, Dublin, 2000).
While the numbers of beatings and mutilations of women were small compared to those for men during the 1990s, they were far from being negligible. Loyalist terror groups were responsible for 33 of the 56 serious assaults on women between 1990 and 2000; republicans accounted for the other 23. On average, therefore, there were five women victims each year. Overall, women accounted for 4% of all "punishment" victims. By contrast with the republican predilection for maiming children and juveniles, loyalist paramilitaries were more likely to select female targets for their attacks. As always with "punishment" statistics, it must be emphasised that these are minimum estimates: the extent of paramilitary intimidation and terror in working class communities in Northern Ireland is greatly underestimated in the statistical record.
There is a further sense in which women experienced the trauma associated with the "punishment" systems to a far greater extent than the official figures might suggest. Mothers, wives, partners, sisters, daughters have their homes invaded by hooded men; they are threatened verbally, sometimes physically; they are sometimes obliged to witness the beating of a male family member, or to listen to the screams from an adjoining room; women are in the frontline in terms of caring for the traumatised and broken bodies of their loved ones. Needless to add, women bear a large if not disproportionate share of the worry for children and adolescents who have been expelled from their homes and neighbourhoods by the IRA, the UVF, the UFF and other strong-arm associations. Some of these women are single parents, struggling to cope with family responsibilities without the support of a male partner. Even in the case of nuclear families, and in line with conventional gender roles, mothers frequently assume the major burden of worry for the welfare of the children.
Trends over Time
It is instructive to look at the trends over time in shootings and assaults on children and adolescents, that is, those in their seventeenth year or younger. Comparing the period up to and including the Good Friday Agreement (1990-98) with the two years since the Agreement (1999-2000), there has been no improvement in relation to the shooting of young people. In fact the reverse was the case. The annual average number of shootings was higher in the last two years.
The deterioration goes farther back in time. In 1995, the first full year of paramilitary ceasefires, there were no shootings of young people at all. Since then the trend has been clearly upwards, with an acceleration in "punishment" shootings as we come closer to the present. It is clear that neither participation in power nor the advent of restorative justice schemes has served to reduce the incidence of vigilante-style shootings of young people. Contrary to some impressions, the guns have not been silent.
When we come to look at trends in "punishment" assaults on children and juveniles, the picture worsens dramatically (see Figure). Not only are these more numerous than "punishment" shootings, they frequently cause more severe long-term damage, including post-traumatic stress disorder. During much of the 1990s the frequency of these attacks was about one every month. (The two exceptional years in the middle of the series were 1995 and 1996 when republican paramilitaries "compensated" for their temporary abandonment of shootings by increasing the use of beatings.)
However, in the last two years the frequency of paramilitary assaults have numbered almost one every fortnight. The increase in the incidence of attacks on children and young people signals a tightening of the control exercised by paramilitary organisations. Another way of putting this is to say that loyalist and republican gunmen – the power of the gun lies behind all types of vigilante activity, from shooting to exiling – have not only ignored the Mitchell Principles and the most elementary notions of human justice, they have actually intensified the degree of repression within working class communities. This appears to be particularly true of loyalist paramilitaries. Since the Good Friday Agreement they have, roughly speaking, doubled the number of beatings administered to young people, as compared to the period 1990-98, while republicans have maintained a more stable average level of violence.
It is little wonder, therefore, that some commentators on Northern Ireland, including this writer, fear the consolidation of a patchwork of Mafia-style mini-states, of orange or green complexion, operating vendetta-style justice and sustained economically by extortion and other forms of racketeering.
Loyalist and republican paramilitaries mainly terrorise males in the younger age groups, those aged less than 30 years. Within the younger age cohorts, the paramilitary abuse of children reaches major proportions. This part of the cruel world of paramilitary "punishments" is one which has received insufficient attention. It follows that it is imperative, if a Children’s Rights Commissioner for Northern Ireland is appointed, that she or he should become actively involved in championing the rights of young people in the face of paramilitary abuse.
Women are much less likely to be the direct targets of paramilitary violence but they are almost invariably implicated through their relationship with men, as mothers, wives, partners, sisters or carers. Indicative of the general neglect of those who suffer under the paramilitary systems of "justice", they are rarely supported openly by women’s groups or spokespersons for such groups.
The trends in paramilitary-style "punishments" are deeply worrying. There is no evidence that the participation of the political associates of the IRA or the UVF in the Northern Ireland Assembly, nor the participation of Sinn Fein in devolved government, have led to a diminution of paramilitary control and intimidation. What evidence exists tends to point in the opposite direction. It might be argued that demands for treatment as normal political parties should be combined with the assumption of conventional democratic responsibilities. These might include a commitment to a progressive reduction of paramilitary acts of shooting, assault and exiling. There seems no good reason why the sovereign governments in London and in Dublin should not insist on such targets. Measurable indicators of paramilitary "justice" systems already exist. Political penalties might be exacted if commitments to the phasing out of paramilitary repression are not met. This of course presupposes a political will to deal with the epidemic of terror in working class neighbourhoods and communities within Northern Ireland.
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