They shoot children, don’t they? Part 2 of report on paramilitary attacks on children in Northern Ireland from 1990 to 2013

Rough Justice

This is Part 2 of “They shoot children, don’t they?”, a report by Professor Liam Kennedy of Queen’s University Belfast on paramilitary attacks on children in Northern Ireland from 1990 to 2013. It is launched today to mark this month’s 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The report documents an aspect of both green and orange paramilitarism that should not be forgotten – the ruthless beatings and shootings of civilians, including teenagers and children, who were members of the very communities that the paramilitaries claimed to be defending.

Professor Liam Kennedy was born in Tipperary and educated at Cistercian College Roscrea, University College Cork and the University of York. He has lived in Belfast since 1976. He has written, edited or co-edited a dozen books on modern Irish history and is emeritus professor of economic history at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

I am proud to have worked with Liam over the years on various peace and justice initiatives in Northern Ireland. He has always displayed courage, a passion for justice, and an independent analytical research approach that is reflected in this important report.

Contents of Part 1 – Overview and Statistics

1. Overview details
2. Other key points
3. “He only turned 14 in July”
4. Iron discipline
5. Age and “punishment” attacks
6. Tables on age and “punishment” attacks
7. Parity of Esteem: Loyalist and Republican Paramilitaries
8. Expulsions or exiling
9. Green-on-green and orange-on-orange violence
10. Punish the child
11. Tables 3 & 4 – Children subjected to “rough justice”
12. Change over time
13. Figures 1 & 2 – “punishment” attacks on children
14. Gender and “punishment” attacks
15. Table 5 – paramilitary-style assaults on women

Contents of Part 2 – Case Studies and Conclusion

16. Women under threat
17. “…To send her son out to get shot”
18. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
19. Ardoyne, Belfast – a blackspot for abuse
20. Exiles
21. A Nelsonian blind eye
22. The media and child abuse
23. Breaking the silence – three case studies
24. The case of Michael McConville
25. The case of Paul Quinn
26. The case of Robert McCartney
27. Conclusion

Part 2 – Case Studies and Conclusion

16. Women under threat

These official statistics do not of course capture the full extent of suffering by women. Far more were driven from their homes, and even larger numbers were subjected to threats and intimidation of one kind or another. [19] According to the Young Life and Times Survey (2004), seven per cent of young women (sixteen year olds) were threatened by paramilitaries and 16% knew of a family member or close friend who had been subjected to a paramilitary-style beating. Mothers, wives, partners, sisters, daughters had their homes invaded by hooded men; they were threatened verbally, sometimes physically; they were sometimes obliged to witness the beating of a male family member, or listen to the screams from an adjoining room; women were in the frontline in terms of caring for the traumatised and broken bodies of their loved ones. Hardly surprisingly, in view of the prevailing gender roles and the large numbers of single mothers, women bore a disproportionate share of the worry for children and adolescents who had been expelled from their homes and neighbourhoods by the IRA, the UVF, the UFF and other strong-arm associations. Some of these women were 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 assumed the major burden of worry for the welfare of the children. [20] Very occasionally a case came before the public because a relative felt he or she had the authority to challenge a particular “punishment”. Thus Donna Maguire, a convicted IRA bomber, demanded a top-level inquiry into an attack on her brother, Malachy Maguire. Malachy was pulled from his car in south Armagh and taken to a nearby children’s play area. He was first beaten with iron bars. He was then held down and shot with a handgun in both his wrists and his ankles. [21] The Maguire family were said to be furious, not least presumably because of past service to the republican movement. Somewhat unusually in this attack, extensive gunshot wounds were preceded by a severe beating.

17. “…To send her son out to get shot”

Acting collectively, women sometimes campaigned against the paramilitary “punishment” system or against political violence more generally. An early example was the mass women’s peace movement of the mid-1970s and there had been manifestations of mobilisation a few years earlier by women calling for peace. In more recent times there was a spontaneous “uprising” of local women in Creggan, Derry city, against the vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs. This was in 2012, after several families on the estate were visited by members of RAAD and ordered to bring their sons to a certain location to be shot in the ankles. Some of the leading figures in the subsequent campaign of public meetings were women. [22] As one put it: “No mother should have to send her son out to get shot.” [23] There were other demonstrations during the Troubles, though relatively few given the scale of the problem. In 2007 some fifty women from Tiger’s Bay, a loyalist stronghold in the north-inner city of Belfast, held a protest meeting close to a UDA mural. They carried placards proclaiming “Drug Dealers Out” and “Get off our Backs”. This was a stinging rebuke to an organisation – the UDA – which claimed to defend the loyalist people but was itself mired in drug dealing and the exploitation of young loyalists. [24] There were also individual woman who took brave public stands, despite the risks involved. These included Carmel Donnelly, from Coleraine, whose son was abducted and beaten by a paramilitary group and who later lost his life while “joy-riding”, and Nancy Gracey, from Downpatrick whose son Paddy was subjected to a paramilitary-style shooting. [25]

Equally remarkable was the campaigning grandmother, Bridie McCloskey from Derry. The McCloskey case illustrates the point that a problem initially involving one person under threat could have wide repercussions, affecting simultaneously several generations and possibly a wider kin network. Her son, Joseph McCloskey from Shantallow in the city, was expelled because he intervened in a pub brawl involving two local IRA “hard men”, one of whom apparently uttered the immortal phrase: “Listen, big fella. Do you know who I am?” [26] One of the two is currently a prominent member of Sinn Féin in Derry.

A few days later, Joseph McCloskey, and his wife Rosie, fled to England. They had six children. A year on, Joseph and part of his family had been re-housed on a sink estate in the north of England, one of a number of moves. Because of their peripatetic state, Joseph had found it difficult to make friends and get work. His wife found their isolated circumstances so depressing that she was on tranquilisers. Joseph summed up their plight in a newspaper interview: “This is not a life. The kids really miss home – all they talk about is Derry. We don’t belong here and it is really hard to settle but what can we do? Who knows when we will be able to stop hiding and have a normal life again?” [27]

In fact the story had a satisfactory ending of sorts, if one discounts the fear and pain of more than a year in exile, the financial costs this involved and the disruption to the children’s schooling and socialisation. Embarrassed by the relentless public campaign conducted by Bridie McCloskey – “I am not stopping until my whole family is back at home with me in Derry where they belong” – republicans in Derry eventually allowed the family back in a secret deal coming up to Christmas 2002. The agreement with a Provisional IRA representative was witnessed and guaranteed by a local priest. The family was not allowed any representative to accompany them to the meeting, though they had asked if the Human Rights Commissioner for Northern Ireland and the Clonard priest, Fr Reid, might be present. [28] The McCloskeys were not allowed to give any further interviews or make contact with the press. Ironically, this was the kind of secrecy that used to be insisted on by the Catholic Church in cases of clerical child sex abuse but which then lay in the past. Concern for child welfare or transparency, still less accountability, appear not to have been features of the informal justice system.

Women could be opponents, bystanders or victims of the “punishment” system. But the practices documented here weren’t the preserve of males only. It is important to place on record that women could also be perpetrators. Indeed we cannot presume that women associated with loyalist or republican groups held views that were very different from those of men on the propriety of the “punishment” system. [29] Jean McConville, it will be recalled, was set upon by a group of women before being taken away for interrogation and execution and the self-confessed driver of the car that ferried her to her death was an IRA woman, the late Dolours Price. [30] Though it would be difficult for anyone to say so openly, I have been assured privately that one of the roles of a named female Sinn Féin activist was to visit parents and tell them where and when to bring their children, to be shot “by appointment”.

18. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

Northern Ireland has probably the best resourced human rights’ sector of virtually any place on the globe. The recent tradition has been to highlight human rights’ abuses by the state but not by non-state actors, as if the far more frequent paramilitary violations took place in a parallel universe. By way of redress, albeit of a very belated kind, we might look at paramilitary child abuse through the lens of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The reluctance of human rights’ groups in Northern Ireland to do so suggests that the exercise might have both a historical and a contemporary policy relevance.

One of the key articles in the Convention has a chilling relevance in the context of Northern Ireland. This is Article 37 which reads in part: “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Or as the pithy version produced by the charity, Save the Children, puts it: “You have the right not to be punished in a cruel or hurtful way”. [31] It is difficult to square such standards with the characteristic activities of paramilitary organisations when dealing with children, including those allegedly involved in anti-social behaviour.

It is self-evident, from what we know of Northern Ireland during the course of the Troubles, that children were subjected to beatings, mutilations and shootings by organised gangs of child abusers from the ultra-nationalist and loyalist traditions. One might object that corporal punishment has been a cultural feature of Irish families and schools for generations. Without in any way wishing to excuse the excesses of parents, teachers and religious in the past, the actions of the IRA, the INLA, the UVF, the UDA and other republican and loyalist organisations were qualitatively different, with consequences of the most brutal and far-reaching kind. It is also troubling that these human rights abuses are not part of the past, not part of the world before the paramilitary ceasefires or even the time before the Good Friday Agreement. The abuses still persist and look set to continue into the indefinite future.

19. Ardoyne, Belfast – a blackspot for abuse

To kidnap a child is outlawed under Article 11. One of the less remarked upon aspects of the paramilitary “punishment” system is that children were sometimes abducted, transported in a car or held against their will in a strange house, before being interrogated and physically brutalised. [32] The consequences of such terrifying ordeals could be far reaching. The fate of seventeen-year old Anthony O’Neill was edged with tragedy. He was abducted from his own bedroom, bound with electric cable, beaten about the head, and thrown down a manhole by the self-styled Irish National Liberation Army. [33] This was in Ardoyne in north Belfast, a few years after the Good Friday Agreement came into being. He was accused of joy-riding, which the family denied. Trapped in darkness underground, he must have experienced intense terror. He eventually managed to chew his way through the cable and after seven hours emerged covered in blood. He then found refuge at his older sister’s home. He was a changed boy. His sister Patricia said he never recovered from the “punishment” and was tormented with extreme feelings of anxiety and paranoia: “He felt he was worthless, he thought he was scum… Because there is no longer a war on, these groups are turning on their own. They need to find something worthwhile to do.” [34] Anthony committed suicide a year later.

The sequel was macabre. His friend Barney Cairns was sixteen years old when he insulted a member of the INLA in Ardoyne. Perhaps he should have been more sensitive to the fragility of the paramilitary ego. Revenge was swift. He received a shooting to both legs. Depression and paranoia followed. He became mentally unstable. Later on the day of his friend Anthony’s funeral, perhaps overcome by grief and hopelessness, he was found hanging from the scaffolding placed round the spire of Holy Cross church in north Belfast. [35] The local priest, Fr Troy, had to climb up to administer the Last Rites. Barney was the thirteenth teenager in six weeks to take his own life. The apparently inter-linked wave of suicides in Ardoyne was no doubt related to a number of personal and societal factors but it also seems clear that paramilitary intimidation was a pervasive force in the community. Appealing to the INLA to release the almost unbearable pressure on young people in Ardoyne, Fr Troy stated: “If they were to make a statement saying to any young person in north Belfast under threat from us [the INLA] of any sort, that we abandon interrogation, sentencing, punishment attacks and harassment, that would instantly relieve the pressure.” [36]

At the height of the INLA power-trip in Ardoyne, the mother of a 13-year old boy reported that INLA members would approach young boys in the park and ask their age. “It won’t be long before you’re getting shot” was their neighbourly advice. [37]

20. Exiles

Articles 9 and 10 of the Convention are especially relevant to children who have been exiled, with their emphasis on the right of children to live with their parents. The McCloskey case illustrates the role of members of the IRA in ensuring that these rights were not respected. The larger picture is that hundreds of children were driven from their homes and deprived of the right to live with their parents during the course of the Troubles. It is extremely difficult to get at reliable estimates but evidence supplied to a British parliamentary committee of inquiry in 2001 indicates that the numbers were large and that many went uncounted. While the major destination outside of Northern Ireland was Britain, others found their way southwards to the Republic of Ireland.

For a variety of reasons, both historical and practical, it has been difficult for the Irish and British states to apprehend republicans and loyalists involved in human rights abuses, when directed against children. These are virtually risk-free activities. But both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland (where vigilante-type activity spread along republican channels on a small scale from the 1990s) had a responsibility to try to ensure that children were protected from being hurt or badly treated (Article 19).

21. A Nelsonian blind eye

Northern Ireland was a blackspot for the abuse of children in a form that had no parallel elsewhere in Western Europe. Why so little public discourse focused on the problem is itself a puzzle. After all, the conditions would seem to have been excellent. Northern Ireland was a highly politicised society; the language of human rights permeated public discourse; and, at an institutional level, there was an active Equality Commission, a Human Rights Commission, a Children’s Commissioner, a Children’s Law Centre and a range of other state-funded initiatives. The community sector was said to have a vibrancy that was unmatched in most other civil societies. More specifically, there were several well-funded voluntary organisations, principally the Committee on the Administration of Justice, that dealt explicitly with human rights issues. Yet the silence was resounding.

A number of social processes helped produce this anomalous state of affairs. The longer-term context was the brutalisation of individuals and communities over three decades or more as a result of violence emanating from paramilitary organisations and the British state. These interactions lowered the threshold of acceptable behaviour in relation to people generally, and children in particular. (An association between political violence and domestic family abuse may also have existed but that disturbing set of possibilities is not pursued further here.) [40]

Relatedly, some individuals in civil society, for a variety of motives, came to acquiesce in the activities of paramilitary organisations, either averting their gaze from the systematic brutalisation of children, or supporting such abuses, or offering justification for such abuses. Some politicians associated with the UVF and the UDA offered tacit support for loyalist paramilitary “policing”, though members of the main unionist parties did not. Sinn Féin was to the forefront in helping operate and justify “punishment” practices. Breakaway groups from mainstream republicanism were at least as brutal in their “policing” methods.

During the 1990s the conduct of politics changed radically in Northern Ireland. There was the realpolitik of the peace process and some policy makers seemed to be of the view that for a transitional period paramilitary organisations had to be treated with special sensitivity (a sensitivity these same organisations conspicuously failed to accord to their child victims). It was never made explicit, though, how the blighting of young lives could be a means of consolidating a peace process founded on principles of non-violence and respect for human rights.

Almost inevitably in a highly politicised society, the human rights agenda also came to be politicised, like virtually every other public issue in Northern Ireland. There was a view in some quarters that human rights were the preserve of the nationalist community. This view could only be sustained by turning a blind eye to paramilitary violations of human rights. Rather like bowdlerised versions of history, a human rights posture could serve as a useful tool for militant nationalists in challenging the legitimacy of the state. Unionist politicians and ideologues, by contrast, tended to ignore human rights abuses by the state, fearing to criticise state institutions, particularly the police, in case this might lend succour to their political opponents. Both stances were in fact highly selective, though in different ways. Staunch unionists saw little merit in investigating abuses of power by the British state or in the promotion of a human rights’ culture, while republican ideologues sought to keep paramilitary “punishments” off the human rights’ agenda. The universalist principles that underpinned the idea of human rights got lost somewhere along the line, as provincial and communalist mind-sets prevailed.

Other voluntary organisations with more diffuse briefs in terms of children’s welfare or human rights’ concerns in a broad sense were, on the whole, silent as well. The much vaunted voluntary sector was the dog that didn’t bark. [41] This again seemed to be due to a variety of motives and circumstances: some were wary of stepping into controversial areas of public life; others were fearful of endangering their existing relationships with paramilitary organisations and their political representatives; others again were controlled directly or indirectly by paramilitary organisations and so were unlikely to speak up for children’s rights or voice criticism of the perpetrators of abuse. [42]

Open and truthful discussion of paramilitary violence – orange-on-orange and green- on-green violence – might have found a place under the powersharing arrangements in the Northern Ireland Assembly. But here, as elsewhere, there were complicating considerations: two of the political parties, Sinn Féin and the Progressive Unionist Party, had historic links to paramilitary organisations and child abuse. The Alliance Party, Northern Ireland and the Social Democratic and Labour Party took consistently principled positions in public against paramilitary-style “punishments”, as did some but not all trade unions. David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party was instrumental in the setting up of the Independent Monitoring Commission which fixed its gaze very firmly on paramilitary deviations from their ceasefire promises. [43] The Democratic Unionist Party also opposed paramilitary “punishments” but some might question its sense of urgency and its sense of priorities on the matter.

22. The media and child abuse

Perhaps the media bore some responsibility for the restricted public discourse? A resort to blaming the messengers is a little too convenient. Media coverage is predicated on the existence of the oxygen of factual detail, as well as interviews and comment that go into the construction of news stories. To attract and sustain media interest there had to be child victims and families prepared to break the silence. They had to be willing to describe how and why a particular attack took place, sharing their feelings of hurt, terror and injury with a wider audience. In a world where Mafia-style omerta prevailed (“whatever you say, say nothing”), this was asking the near-impossible.

In addition, the media needed to be able to talk to medical practitioners about the injuries, and to social workers and community workers, teachers, police and others about the knock-on effects in terms of the welfare of the child. This rarely happened, which brings us to the most important reason of all for the neglect of the paramilitary abuse of children. As with clerical child abuse, it came down to differences in power and the willingness to use power ruthlessly. If victims, or their families, took a stand and brought their plight into the public arena, then they were inviting even more violent abuse at the hands of the the UVF, the UDA, the IRA, and related organisations. This was the simple and fundamental truth, that of the direct silencing of victims and their families. [44] Silence may not be golden, but the instilling of terror in these circumstance could be seen as rational, from the viewpoint of armed groups at least.

23. Breaking the silence – three case studies

What were the chances of victims of child abuse coming forward, recounting their ordeal in public and seeking to bring perpetrators of abuse to justice? For most of the shot-up, shut-up victims the chances were close to vanishing point.

Three case studies illustrate the depth of the problem.

24. The case of Michael McConville

One of the most notorious instances of child abuse, at a variety of levels, relates to Michael McConville, one of the sons of Jean McConville who was abducted by the IRA, interrogated and murdered in the Republic of Ireland. According to Michael McConville:

“The IRA came to the door and took our mother, we were all crying, my mother was crying, she had cuts and bruises on her face from the night before when the IRA had taken her out of the bingo hall….We were all clinging on to her. We were holding on to her. It took five to ten minutes for them to take her away.”

Michael was eleven-years old at the time but this did not save him from further terror. A week later the IRA abducted Michael also, put a hood over his head, and took him to a strange house.

“They tied me to a chair and they beat me with sticks and put a gun to my head. They said they would kill me if I gave any information about the IRA. This went on for about three hours. At the end of it, they said they were going to shoot me and they fired a cap gun.”

Even though Michael recognised some of the IRA members, and still sees some of them in his locality, he is not prepared to name them to the police. Forty years after the event, he still fears for his life and that of his family. [45]

25. The case of Paul Quinn

The second case study is an example of a “punishment” assault that appears to have gone wrong. As with the McConville case – a family-wide tragedy – it links North and South. Paul Quinn was from Cullyhanna, in south Armagh, but his murder took place over the border in County Monaghan.

A dozen or so armed and masked men, believed to be local republicans, were involved in his beating at a farm on the Co. Monaghan side of the Border in 2007. The chief instrument of “punishment” was iron bars but nail-studded cudgels were used on the upper body to puncture and tear skin and tissue. The scene or place of justice was a disused cow house and farmyard. Two of his friends were held down in a neighbouring shed, and taunted as the “punishment” progressed: can you hear your friend squealing for mercy? One said later: “They were beating him, you could hear the bars bouncing off him, maybe four or five bars, he was screaming.” [46] This lasted for 25 to 30 minutes, and continued for some minutes after the young man temporarily lost consciousness. The victim’s 18-year-old girl friend, Emma, was summoned on her mobile phone by one of the friends. She found Paul in the byre.

“He was more or less screaming with the pain, he was in a bad way…I thought first that he had got bullet shots in his legs, but it was actually the bone sticking out of his knee. I thought he was just going to have broken arms, broken legs. He had bruises all over his face and his head and there was blood coming out of his arms and legs.” [47]

Paul Quinn died on the way to hospital. Every major bone in his body below the neck had been broken. He was just 21 years old. No one was ever convicted for the assault. To this day Sinn Féin denies publicly that members of the IRA were involved, even though the Quinn family, local people, the Garda, and virtually every independent commentator believe republicans carried out the murderous assault. [48]

26. The case of Robert McCartney

Robert McCartney of the Short Strand in Belfast tried to help a friend who had been assaulted and stabbed by members of the IRA following an altercation in a Belfast bar in January 2005. The bar was packed with republicans who were returning from a commemoration ceremony earlier in the day. McCartney was jumped on by a group of men outside Magennis’s bar in the Markets area of Belfast, beaten with iron bars, stabbed with a kitchen knife, kicked on the head and left for dead. As he lay dying by the roadside, the paramilitaries involved cleaned the crime scene of any forensic evidence. [49] He died the following morning in a Belfast city hospital.

When police tried to search homes in the nearby Markets the following day, the Sinn Féin representative for the area, Alex Maskey, accused the police of using the murder as “an excuse to disrupt life within this community”. [50] Some 70 republicans, members of the IRA and Sinn Féin, or both, were in Magennis’s bar on that fatal night. While some, accompanied by solicitors, gave statements to the police, none gave evidence of any value to a subsequent prosecution. Many claimed to have been in the toilet at the time the altercation began. A local view is that the IRA members involved had been “out of control for years, involved in paedophilia, attempted rape and domestic violence – in one case branding a woman on her breast with a steam iron.” [51]

The significant point here is that, rhetoric apart, Sinn Féin did not assist the police in bringing the killers to justice. In the view of the McCartney Sisters that is still the case.

For a long time the IRA covered over the fact that they had “disappeared” Jean McConville, just as they lied about a number of others who were murdered and their bodies secretly disposed of in boglands or shorelands in the Republic of Ireland. The statement of Michael McConville brings out the point that republican-inspired fear stands in the way of justice for the McConville children. The aftermath of the cases of Paul Quinn and Robert McCartney also reveals that the republican movement, including Sinn Féin, has a poor track record when it comes to revealing the truth about activities most would regard as appalling violations of people’s right to life.

27. Conclusion

The typical victim of a paramilitary-style punishment was young, working class and male. He could come from either a Catholic or a Protestant background. He was likely to be educationally and socially disadvantaged. Those most at risk were men in their twenties. Some of the injuries inflicted were of a life-altering kind, leaving permanent physical and psychological scars. A minority was executed. Hundreds and very probably thousands were exiled. Among the victims sizeable proportions were children.

Attacks on children intensified following the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994. Even the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 did not mark a turning point in orange-on-orange or green-on-green violence. The loyalist and republican legacies lived on. Many of those under threat were children; others were children of adults under threat. Sometimes, as we have seen, the attacks on children were by arrangement, rather like a dental appointment or a job interview, with an already-stretched National Health Service obliged to pick up the pieces. Exiling also achieved fresh popularity during the later 1990s.

In the late twentieth century Northern Ireland was home to waves of organised and violent child abuse, of a kind that had no exact precedents in the history of the Irish or British states. The closest parallels may be abuses within the Magdalene asylums, mother and child homes, reformatories and clergy-controlled schools. Even in these institutions there was no general policy of organised and systematic physical abuse of children. Among those “punished” by the paramilitaries, in extreme cases the consequences could be lethal: some died from the injuries they received; others were driven over the edge into suicide. [52]

It is easy to see how the “punishment” system generated its own automatic cover-up. Every victim understood that speaking to the media or the authorities more generally could result in further attacks on them or their loved ones. Virtually without exception, every victim of a paramilitary “punishment” I have spoken to is unwilling to speak in public. Being silenced is part of the “punishment”. Sinn Féin has urged victims of child sexual abuse, for instance, to speak to the police. This is of course an appropriate thing to do, and is necessary to bring perpetrators of child abuse to justice. However, coming from Sinn Féin, it does nothing to lift the weight of fear at street level in working-class areas. This is because members of Sinn Féin have been part of the “punishment” system for years, Sinn Féin and IRA membership heavily overlapped, and Sinn Féin advice centres were used to collect information and interrogate potential victims. Leading members of Sinn Féin have sought to explain away these practices as merely “rough justice”. [53] Because of the Sinn Féin track record on child abuse it is hardly surprising that victims are sceptical of any assurances coming from the party. The same is true of assurances from the UVF and the UDA.

A dual standard of law and morality pertained in some neighbourhoods in Belfast, Lisburn, Newry, Derry and beyond during the course of the Troubles, and to some extent persists down to this day. This may seem curious but a simple thought experiment makes the point. Had a gang of policemen ordered a child to appear at an alleyway or behind a block of flats at a specified time, and had one of them then coldly and deliberately shot a child in any part of the body, there would have been a huge public outcry, and rightly so. Had a rogue gang of policemen cornered and overpowered a child and smashed his limbs or joints, while the parents were held helplessly nearby, the public would have been shocked and angered. Had this gone on, week in and week out, the international community would have been outraged. Every human rights group in the western world would have been alerted.

Not so in the demi-monde of paramilitary control in Northern Ireland. Paramilitaries enjoyed and enforced silence and compliance, even though the signs of abuse – welts, bruising, bandaging, swellings, crutches, wheel chairs – were highly visible but only in the neighbourhoods controlled by paramilitaries. It is worth reiterating the point that vigilante justice produced enormous pain and suffering for both adults and children, to no productive end. It deformed bodies and lives. It visited its wrath on some of the poorest, most powerless and most disadvantaged in Northern Irish society.

In these circumstances, for once, and yet again, the old Heaney line proves best: Whatever you say, say nothing.[54] The silence is only beginning to be broken, and for some – already broken in spirit as well as in mind – the stories, with their manifold ramifications, are unlikely ever to see the light of day.

Liam Kennedy
Queen’s University, Belfast
November 2014

Notes and sources

[19] For the survey results see (accessed 4 June 2014).

[20] A General Practitioner in Poleglass in west Belfast told me in May 2005 that it was almost invariably women who came to surgery to voice their worries about sons in trouble with the paramilitaries. What they sought was a listening ear and tranquilisers, lots of tranquilisers. It was her impression that it was the women who also took responsibility for interceding with the paramilitaries. “The men were useless,” was her comment (NIHR file, 2005).

[21] Observer, 12 Nov. 2000. The eventual outcome is not known to me.

[22] John Lindsay, No Dope Here: Anti-Drugs Vigilantism in Northern Ireland (Derry, 2011), pp. 308-9.

[23] Derry Journal, 7 March and 16 March 2012.

[24] Guardian, 6 Nov. 2007.

[25] I came to know both women through their activity in human rights groups, and no doubt there are many others whose role may or may not become apparent in time. Their families bear silent witness to the devotion and courage of such women.

[26] Reported in the Belfast Telegraph, 19 March 2002. See also the (London) Telegraph, 3 Sept. 2002.

[27] Belfast Telegraph, 19 March 2002.

[28] As it happens, I was asked by a member of the family to make the contacts and invited to attend the meeting. The Commissioner, Dr Brice Dickson, immediately agreed to the family’s request. Fr. Reid was out of the country at the time, and a Redemptorist priest at Clonard Monastery offered assistance. The McCloskey family were not allowed to bring representatives along, in this case either the Human Rights Commissioner or myself. That was not the IRA way. Isolating the victims and secrecy were paramount.

[29] For what it’s worth, while canvassing in Belfast during the General Election of 2005 I recall being told by a young woman that she favoured “punishment” attacks – what alternative was there? – though she added that her husband, who was absent at the time, was opposed.

[30] Irish News, 18 Febr. 2010 and Guardian, 1 May 2014. See also Seamus McKendry, Disappeared: The Search for Jean McConville (Dublin, 2000).

[31] Save the Children leaflet.

[32] For an example see the article by William Scholes, Irish News, 22 February 2003.

[33] Telegraph, 18 Febr. 2004; Guardian, 17 Febr. 2004.

[34] Guardian, 17 Febr. 2004.

[35] Telegraph, 18 Febr. 2004.

[36] Ibid., 18 Feb. 2004. In a comment on the Ardoyne suicides the writer Eamonn McCann railed against the “guttersnipes with guns who think they’ve done a great day’s work for Ireland if they’ve managed to maim another working-class child”. See The Blanket: A Journal of Protest and Dissent, 12 March 2004: (accessed 18 May 2014).

[37] Guardian, 17 Febr. 2004.

[38] Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Relocation following Paramilitary Intimidation (House of Commons, 2001).

[39] Areas affected included inner-city Dublin and north Kerry.

[40] For some suggestive ideas see Monica McWilliams, “Masculinity and Violence: a Gender Perspective on Policing and Crime in Northern Ireland” in Liam Kennedy, Crime and Punishment (Belfast, 1995), pp 15-25. The point has been made also by Dawn Purvis, the former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which has links to the UVF.

[41] There must be exceptions to this generalisation but outside of those mentioned earlier it is not easy to find examples in the written record. The Greater West Belfast Community Association was one honourable exception. It was chaired in the 1990s by Margaret Walsh, who came from a Catholic, nationalist and working-class background and was one of the many unsung heroes of community action in Northern Ireland.

[42] This paragraph is a distillation of dozens of conversations with community activists on paramilitary involvement in community affairs .

[43] The IMC published some two dozen reports into paramilitary and related activity between 2004 and 2011. These reports contain much more detail of the human suffering than is possible here.

[44] Paramilitary organisations cast a long shadow. My attempt to interview two victims of a paramilitary expulsion order in Newry, Co. Down, more than a decade after the event had taken place, was rebuffed in a friendly but firm manner: “You never know what the organisation might do.”( NIHR file, Sept. 1993).

[45] There was extensive newspaper coverage of this case in the Irish Independent, Irish News, Irish Times and Irish Examiner. An important interview with Michael McConville may be found at (accessed 29 Oct. 2014). See also Seamus McKendry, Disappeared: The Search for Jean McConville (Dublin, 2000).

[46] Sunday Tribune, 28 Oct. 2007; Irish News, 19 Nov. 2007.

[47] Irish News, 19 Nov. 2007.

[48] Guardian, 23 Oct. 2005; Newry Democrat, 27 Febr. 2008.

[49] The circumstances of the murder and the family’s quest for justice are recounted by his sister, Catherine McCartney, in a remarkable book entitled Walls of Silence (Dublin, 2007). In addition to talking to Catherine and Paula McCartney, I have also discussed that fatal night with Brendan Devine, Robert McCartney’s friend, who received serious stab wounds but survived the attack.

[50] BBC News Channel: (accessed 2 Nov. 2014).

[51] Quoted in The Guardian, 28 Febr. 2005.

[52] See for example “Son killed himself over IRA beatings”, Irish News, 19 Oct. 1995.

[53] Danny Morrison, “Myth of ‘totalitarian militarism’ in republican areas needs challenging”, Saoirse32, 15 May 2005.

[54] The title of a poem written by Seamus Heaney during the 1970s. He was of course invoking a colloquial phrase deeply embedded in the culture of the North.

This is a link to Part 1 of Report – Overview and Statistics

They shoot children, don’t they? Part 2 of report on paramilitary attacks on children in Northern Ireland from 1990 to 2013

7 thoughts on “They shoot children, don’t they? Part 2 of report on paramilitary attacks on children in Northern Ireland from 1990 to 2013

  1. Sinn Fein members have a lot of blood on their hands, yet their most visible leaders during that time are now protected to ensure the ‘peace’.

    The criminals in the IRA/UDF etc have been granted amnesty even for crimes they haven’t admitted to and they still rule by threat of violence.

    How anyone can vote for these criminal parties amazes me.

  2. Depressing reading. I cannot find enough disgust within me to describe these crimes. I wish those responsible could one day undeerstand the full horror of their actions, but I very much doubt it. It takes more than fanaticism to harm a child: it takes a totally deranged mind, a mind beyond redemption. My only hope to restore some sense of justice is for those deranged minds to be living hells.

  3. These horrors are also a terrible lesson on the consequences of taking the law unto our own hands. Once the circle of aggression and retaliation is set in motion, it can’t be stopped, and people being the stupid monkeys that they are it escalates at every turn.

    It reminds me of the standing audience effect: if anyone in a sitting audience stands up to get a better view, everybody else will stand up too, the result being that now everyone will be less comfortable with no advantage for anybody. Obviously, the first one to stand up should be made to sit, but this reasonable solution is never implemented, because we’ve evolved to be both competitive and coward. The monsters who committed these atrocities do not realise they’ve exposed themselves as incapable of overcoming their basest, most primitive nature.

  4. Piero:

    The monsters who committed these atrocities do not realise they’ve exposed themselves as incapable of overcoming their basest, most primitive nature.

    Most of them probably could not care less. Sectarian violence provides an environment for sociopaths to act out their violent tendencies without sanction from their community.

  5. @Gerhard:

    I’m afraid you’re right: the Catholic church attracts paedofiles, terrorist organizations attract sociopaths, and banks attract… well, bankers.

    And don’t worry about “sanction.” It can mean “penalty” but also “encouragement,” so both “with sanction” and “without sanction” are right given the context.

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