Desensitisation to extreme violence is a legacy of the conflict in the North, according to the organiser of a conference in Belfast exploring how society can help end paramilitary intimidation.
Professor Liam Kennedy from the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University Belfast said there is a "degree of acceptance to dehumanisation over half a century" at the Paramilitary Intimidation Within Communities event held in conjunction with the Children of the Troubles group.
The conference was held to highlight to scale of paramilitary attacks on young people from disadvantaged areas of the North and for it to be part of the beginning of a campaign to end such actions.
Prof Kennedy called on politician, police and wider society to do more.
He said the 6,000 recorded instances of paramilitary “punishments”, including shootings and beatings, from 1973-2013 is an underestimate and spoke of the ongoing “astonishing toll of human suffering, directed particularly at young, working class males, from loyalist and republican areas”.
“Inevitably there is a degree of dehumanisation and acceptance of horrific forms of punishment which in the 1960s would have been regarded as absolutely beyond the pale but now have become accepted in some areas,” he said.
Prof Kennedy finds it difficult to get his head around “the willingness, sometimes the enthusiasm of volunteers to involve themselves in paramilitary-administered “punishments” such as kneecapping and severe beatings.
“In effect forms of torture and on a vast scale,” he said. “One thing is for sure, there will be no great ballads written about the brave volunteers whose normal duties include brutalising members of their own community, be they from loyalist or republican backgrounds.”
Ulster Unionist councillor Dr Christopher McGimpsey spoke on loyalist paramilitaries in working class areas he has represented.
“It’s all about control,” he said. “Paramilitaries have effectively lost their rationale because in loyalist areas they should be disappearing but are clearly not which means there must be more than the standard public rationale they gave for existing. “We have to persuade them to disband.”
Dr McGimpsey said there will always be crime but it’s also an issue of people “worrying about losing prestige” and communities are not as worried as they used to be about speaking out about paramilitary intimidation.
“There is a feeling they are moving away, a little bit, from some of the community endeavours but are still involved in the criminal stuff,” he said. “That means they are not coming into face to face conflict as much. That is only a theory.”
On the whether the PSNI is sufficiently resourced to tackle paramilitarism, he said, “the police would tell you they are not”.
“I don’t know if the police are properly resourced or not, but they are not dealing with it,” Dr McGimpsey added.
Labour Senator Mairia Cahill spoke of personal experience of intimidation by the IRA and suggested the PSNI needs to be better resourced to tackle the impact loyalist and republican groups had in areas of the North.
“The conversations today have been important,” she said. “In relation to civic responsibility is the fact you have disengagement with the political process and that creates a vacuum.
“There is no place for criminality on any side within any of these working class areas as it does perpetuate a cycle of violence and in many instances that cycle ends up in the home.”
Ms Cahill, from west Belfast, said her brief involvement with the Republican Network for Unity (RNU) group a number of years ago came at a time in her life when she was “vulnerable and disengaged”.
“Anybody that joins any of those groups at a vulnerable point in their life are disengaged,” she said.
“I’ve dealt with it, I spoke at length on Drive Time and previously on Newstalk, I’ve written about it in the past.
“Certainly I found myself at a point in my life, which I am not in now, where, yes, I was vulnerable and I was disaffected, and you can be vulnerable and articulate at the same time. It’s one of those things.
“You could throw a stone in west Belfast and there are ex-prisoners from all walks of life, some involved in community activity, some have different political opinions, and some unfortunately are involved in criminality and that is a legacy of the conflict also.”
Anti-vigilantism researcher John Lindsay from Derry delivered a speech entitled Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) — Portrait of a terror gang and popular protests again them.
“RAAD Not In Our Name continue to monitor and campaign against paramilitary threats and violence,” he said.
“It is my hope that the lessons learnt from the campaign against RAAD can help inform the ongoing struggle to end the menace of paramilitary intimidation and violence within our communities.”