Time to Go – end paramilitary control – began this morning, before most (but not all) journalists were ready to get out from their beds. Those who did make it, were Liam Kennedy (the Independent who organised it), Alex Attwood (SDLP), Chris McGimpsey (UUP), John Lowry (Worker’s Party). David Ervine did not show, but offered to debate punishment shootings in his own East Belfast constituency. Diane Dodds apparently had a school run to complete. Gerry Adams didn’t reply to his invitation.
Kennedy referred to official police figures which show there had been more than 3000 punishments shootings and 2250 punishment beatings since the beginning of the troubles. He also noted a culture change in the course of the troubles, arguing that this kind of treatment would not have been tolerated in the West Belfast of the 1960’s but have come to be looked on as entirely acceptable in the community at large.
John Lowry argued that punishment beatings is “a question of social control over working class areas by paramilitaries”. He was highly critically community restorative justice, arguing that although the theory is fine, but that in West Belfast “it’s being used in some instances to establish an alternative police force”. He talked of people having summonses delivered at 1 o’clock in the morning to restorative meetings at 10 o’clock in the morning”, sometimes along with warnings of the dire consequences should they not attend.
Alex Attwood claimed that “…on the ground people are crying out for lawful authority. They can see their communities under stress because of the absence of the law and due process of the law”. He argued that paramilitaries had too much to lose when it came to accepting this lawful authority of the state and that they don’t show many signs of accepting this anytime soon.
However, he does see a changing attitude amongst Nationalists in West Belfast towards the PSNI. He asserted that despite pressures from the hard men and their distrust of the police people in West Belfast are beginning to turn to the PSNI for community are beginning to test the police, and “in turn the police more times than not are beginning to pass that test”.
Chris McGimpsey (the only Unionist on the platform) reported from the other side of the peace line. Where nationalists don’t accept the legitimacy of the PSNI, Unionists do. But that doesn’t seem to make any difference on the Shankill. He questioned the paramilitarys c the vigorous recruitment of youngsters into organisations like the Young Citizen Volunteers and the Ulster Young Militants (youth wings of the UVF and the UDA respectively) -“it’s because the paramilitaries want to have a continuing stake in our society”.
He pointed out that the paramilitaries are part of the community: “When you ask people in the community about paramilitaries, you are talking about the fellah who used to date your sister, the guy who sat beside you in Sunday School, your brother-in- law or the guy you used to kick football with in the Boys Brigade”. In tight knit communities many families will contain people who are both victims of punishment shootings, and members of the paramilitaries. This makes it difficult to galvanise unified community action against paramilitary activity.