As the deadline approaches for the setting up of the new Northern Ireland Executive, several dangerous and unresolved problems are converging with the potential to destabilize the whole peace process. The first, as always, is the issue of decommissioning, which David Trimble, the first minister elect, says unless it is resolved to the satisfaction of Unionists, could lead to the current political arrangements being temporarily abandoned. But now the controversy over so-called punishment beatings and shootings, administered by paramilitary groups, has merged with the decommissioning issue.
Several vicious examples of these attacks, including one in which a Protestant man lost both his legs after a "kneecapping," have highlighted their barbarity. So far this year four people have been shot by the IRA, and six by loyalist groups. During the same period, the IRA has administered beatings to 12 people, and the loyalists have been responsible to 16 such incidents. Meanwhile, 62 people have already been forced into exile. The anger and concern about paramilitary "justice" erupts at a time when the whole issue of how to police Northern Ireland is under the sharpest scrutiny that it has been since the late 1960s.
Conservative MPs have been now joined by several of the governing Labor Party’s MPs in a demand that the prisoner-release program, one of the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, be slowed down or halted altogether until the punishment beatings cease. So far, Tony Blair the British prime minister, and his Northern Ireland secretary of state, Mo Mowlam, have resisted this demand, pointing out that it would put in jeopardy the whole agreement.
Unfortunately, Sinn Fein has been less than helpful, scorning even to send its top negotiators to meet with Mowlam when she recently asked for a discussion on punishment beatings. Martin McGuinness issued a statement justifying the IRA’s savage treatment of so-called offenders, saying it was "inevitable" in the absence of good policing. What he really means is that it is inevitable until the IRA gets a police force it likes. In the meantime, it administers beatings, shootings and exilings without any court, representation or appeal available for those unfortunate enough to have perhaps done nothing more than fall foul of one of its local warlords. The same situation exists on the loyalist side.
The punishment-beatings issue feeds into the decommissioning controversy very simply. Every time the UVF, UDA or IRA shoot or maim someone, those who are demanding decommissioning before their representatives are allowed into the Executive are given further proof that those demands are right and just, since such acts of violence are in clear violation of the Mitchell Principles. Every kneecap shot off cripples the argument that decommissioning should not be allowed to stand in the way of Sinn Fein members taking their seats. Not only that, but it is threatening to cripple the Good Friday Agreement, for which less than a year ago the people of Ireland, North and South, voted in overwhelming numbers.
An acceptable police force will have to be created for all the people of Northern Ireland. But in the meantime, the imposition of gutter justice can only make the creation of such a force more difficult and play into the hands of the agreement’s enemies.
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