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Belfast Groups Shoot Dissidents

April 25, 1999

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ One recent night in Catholic west Belfast, a few hundred angry people marched to the front doors of two neighbors. Their message was simple: Get out or else.

``They weren’t beaten up, just confronted with taped evidence of their drug-dealing,″ says Tommy Holland, an organizer behind a new Irish Republican Army-supported initiative to mobilize neighborhoods against ``anti-social elements″ _ the Belfast euphemism for common criminals.

Like hundreds of others, the members of the two households targeted that evening fled for good, fearing the traditional alternative _ an IRA ``kneecapping,″ which entails the deliberate shooting or clubbing of limbs as punishment.

Northern Ireland’s year-old peace accord, buoyed by longer cease-fires from the IRA and outlawed pro-British paramilitary groups, is offering a new way for Protestants and Catholics to govern their country together.

But it also is turning law vs. order _ particularly how paramilitary outlaws long have brutalized people within their own communities _ into a divisive issue in this era of supposed peace.

In the year since Northern Ireland’s peace accord was struck, the IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Force, which operates in poor Protestant areas, have meted out more than 100 ``punishment″ attacks.

In the worst IRA case, a man accused of beating a senior IRA figure was left to bleed to death in a stairwell.

The most gruesome UVF attack left the victim with both legs amputated below the thigh. His crime was showing disloyalty by blabbing about an affair a UVF man’s wife was having.

The IRA’s allies in the Sinn Fein party and the UVF’s Progressive Unionist Party both want to defuse the political liability of punishment attacks. But both are unwilling to rely on traditional law enforcement: the predominantly Protestant police, courts and prisons _ the very system that attempts to put paramilitary groups out of business.

Both parties say the better approach is to back new neighborhood-based programs designed to reduce, not eliminate, punishment attacks.

These programs, operating under the label ``community restorative justice,″ involve mediation between victims and accused offenders, working in tandem with panels that pass probation-style sentences.

On the Sinn Fein side, the formula allows for more aggressive action, such as protesting outside the homes of uncooperative individuals and banning them from neighborhood shops and businesses.

To their many critics, these programs seem designed to ensure that IRA and UVF supporters remain the real power-brokers in areas where police still use armored cars for protection.

``The community restorative justice agenda can’t be driven by one group or one section of opinion. It has to be accountable and democratic. Otherwise, it can be abused as a new tool of oppression,″ says Alex Attwood of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, a moderate Catholic party.

A pressure group that campaigns to stop punishment attacks, Families Against Intimidation and Terror, accuses the IRA and UVF of posing as anti-drug crusaders when they really profit from drug-trafficking _ a claim vociferously denied by both groups, but backed by the police.

``The IRA and UVF are among the biggest criminal racketeers in this society,″ says Vincent McKenna, the group’s spokesman, who was once an IRA member.

``They accuse other people of anti-social behavior, when together they have murdered thousands of people and blown up half of Belfast. The idea that they or their supporters are in any position to judge others would be laughable if it weren’t so perverse.″

Though Holland, the neighborhood organizer, hasn’t done prison time for IRA offenses, others in his office have.

He says about 15 locals have received training to mediate between victims and victimizers to arrive at a suitable ``restorative″ punishment. This usually involves ``a formal contract, with the hood _ say a wee lad who wrecked a man’s garden _ agreeing to fix up his garden again.″

If neither side wants to enter into mediation, the case is turned over to a three-member panel of what Holland calls ``King Solomons,″ which passes a community-service sentence.

If the accused refuses to accept that sentence, Holland says, ``we call a mass community meeting and explain the background to the case and say we’ve thrown our hands up.″

A half-mile away, beyond the 30-foot-high walls that separate Catholics from Protestants in west Belfast, the UVF-supported Greater Shankill Alternatives is the neighborhood justice project.

``It would be great if everybody went to the police and they solved everything. But we’re better placed to tackle some problems,″ says Tom Winstone, who spent 17 years in prison for killing two Catholic men as part of the UVF’s now-suspended terrorism campaign.

``If we were just to say `Go to the police,′ the hood in question might end up in prison for three months, which isn’t good enough,″ he says. ``Our way stands a better chance of people seeing the error of their ways.″

The dozen or so Protestant youths referred to the project all have been counseled about what they did wrong, and most signed a contract offering to correct their behavior, Winstone says. Some were assigned an adult mentor and talked things through with the people they admitted harming.

``All these lads would have had their legs broke under the old setup,″ Winstone says.

Senior police officials, sensing the issue won’t go away, are starting to voice qualified support for the community concept _ but only if they’re centrally involved.

``Restorative justice is a legitimate approach,″ says Chief Inspector Stephen White, who oversees police efforts to improve community relations. ``But these restorative justice systems must be part of the formal criminal justice system. Anyone or any group who believes they can deal with offenses and exclude the police ... is committing an offense themselves.″

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