The hue and cry about so-called punishment beatings has taken on an unfortunate political dimension. It is being used by those who are seeking to force Northern Ireland’s paramilitaries to decommission weapons before their representatives should be allowed to take their places in the new executive as proof that their demands are well-founded.
There is understandable revulsion at the vicious beatings, maimings, and threats that characterize these acts, and it is somewhat sickening to hear Sinn Fein spokesmen piously recite the party line about them being a product of the absence of acceptable policing. The beatings are in fact as much a result of the presence of paramilitary gangs and their belief that they have a right to control their neighborhoods as they are with any thing to do with the police. If the police are absent in the community or unable to police it thoroughly, it has something to do with the fact that for almost 30 years they were targeted by heavily armed organizations intent on killing as many officers as possible. Those organizations may now be on cease-fire but others are lurking in the shadows eager to replace them with further violence.
Revulsion at the attacks themselves and skepticism at Sinn Fein propaganda should not blind us to the danger of this issue being used to block progress toward the full implementation of the Good Friday multi-party agreement. Punishment attacks are hardly good evidence of the need for immediate disarmament, since they are as often as not carried out with clubs, baseball bats and bars, as they are with weapons.
The beatings are proof that Northern Ireland continues to be a society with deep-seated conflicts, still unresolved, that allow those organizations to retain credibility. They should be an incentive to all parties involved in the agreement to push ahead as rapidly as possible so that its provisions can be implemented. Only in that way can the current political vacuum in which the paramilitaries and their barbaric practices continue to flourish be brought to an end.