Paramilitaries control NI communities with muscle and fear

Dark underbelly of Northern Ireland society includes punishment attacks and evictions

At Holy Cross Church in north Belfast last week, Joanne McGibbon said the local Ardoyne community was stronger than those who just days earlier had murdered her husband Michael in a so-called punishment shooting.

“The strength of this community will overtake anything that anyone who wants to destroy it has to do,” she said.

“If we all stay strong we can stop these people. They can’t beat us, and it’s not fair that families should have to go through this. They are not judge and jury,” said Ms McGibbon who was left with four children to rear.

Her comments were heartfelt and moving, but did not prompt a united heartfelt community and political response to demonstrate that the paramilitaries could be resisted.


It’s just a plain fact that in many working-class communities, these organisations exercise control through muscle and fear, and resisting them can be dangerous.

Communities need police and political support.

What Ms McGibbon was speaking about was the dark underbelly of Northern Ireland society that is another part of the legacy of the Troubles. That is reflected in the data here compiled by the Detail on paramilitary killings, shootings, bombings and "punishment" attacks, and the exiling of people from their homes.

Most people are familiar with the well-publicised paramilitary murders in Northern Ireland of recent years, those carried out mainly by dissident republicans, but also by loyalist organisations.

They’ll remember the murders of two British soldiers, Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey, of PSNI officers Ronan Kerr and Stephen Carroll, of prison officers David Black and, most recently, Adrian Ismay.

Some will be aware of the regular feuds over criminal turf and drugs involving dissidents and the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, and perhaps of the 2010 UVF murder on the Shankill Road of Bobby Moffet, which caused considerable outrage in that community.

Yet unless they are from those communities, most people are not so conscious of how paramilitaries exercise control, of how through intimidation they can compel people to turn up for “punishment” shootings by appointment - because the alternative is so much more terrifying.

They would not be aware that each year, hundreds are forced to leave their homes on the say-so of some local dissident republican, UVF or UDA heavy.

Tens of millions have been allocated to helping the PSNI and MI5 and the Garda to combat dissident organisations such as the New IRA, Óglaigh na hÉireann and the Continuity IRA.

But there is not anything like the same resources dedicated to tackling incidents such as the murder of Michael McGibbon and the hundreds of “punishment” shootings and beatings in which no one died but people were left maimed and mentally scarred.

The same lack of focus applies in terms of a security strategy to prevent people being forced from their homes. It happened throughout the Troubles and, as shown by the Detail, it continues to happen.

Next month, a three-person panel is due to advise the new Northern Executive on a strategy to get the paramilitaries to properly disband. It was formed following the murders last summer of Gerard Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan, and the security assessment that there is still a Provisional IRA army council and that IRA members were implicated in McGuigan's murder.

Whatever ideas they come up with will not be implemented in days, weeks or months, because completely ridding Northern Ireland of paramilitaries will be a long-term and difficult process. It might never be fully possible.

And again there will be a concern that concentration will be on major security matters, and how these organisations bully and threaten communities will not be appropriately addressed.

Blocking dissidents

This week in Belfast, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams called on all political parties to "make clear" their attitude to paramilitary groups and for communities to stand with Joanne McGibbon in facing down the dissidents.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt rather derisively said Sinn Féin, through previously defending IRA actions, had "drawn the road map for today's terrorists use to justify their brutal and bloody activities". Northern Ireland can be full of incongruities and paradoxes and Nesbitt could not resist highlighting them.

Nonetheless, Sinn Féin is part of the political mainstream now and, whatever about the ironies, all political parties must play a part in trying to make life tolerable in working class areas such as Ardoyne and the Shankill.

Notwithstanding Ms McGibbon’s plea for unity and resistance, it is going to be a long struggle to break the power of the paramilitaries on the street. A decent start might be for a united political front.