Paramilitary-style shootings continue to haunt the North

Unresolved policing and legacy issues mean some areas are still governed by gunmen

Graffiti in Derry. The PSNI recorded  23 casualties of paramilitary-style shootings in the 12 months until the end of June.

Graffiti in Derry. The PSNI recorded 23 casualties of paramilitary-style shootings in the 12 months until the end of June.

 

William Allen remembers July 1997 as a time of hope. Now an editor with Johnston Press in Northern Ireland, back then he was a Belfast Telegraph reporter covering the second IRA ceasefire.

“I remember speaking to people who’d been widowed by paramilitaries on both sides and they were hopeful the war was over.”

His nephew Andrew was only a child at the time. Fifteen years later, in February 2012, he would become the first person to be shot dead by dissident republican group Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD), which had previously been responsible for a number of non-fatal paramilitary-style shootings of alleged drug-dealers in the Derry and Strabane areas.

Andrew, a 24-year-old father-of-two from Derry, had been one of several men forced to leave the city by dissident republicans the previous year. He died when three men fired shots through a bedroom window of the house in Buncrana, Co Donegal, where he was living.

“There was a sense of unreality,” said William.

“The family was devastated, but it wasn’t until a few months later that it hit me.

“I got nosebleeds, and I would go and hit a punchbag in the garage.

“There was anger, without a doubt. I felt anger in a way I’d never felt anger before.”

There is this belief among some people that people who are shot don’t get it for nothing, whereas we know, in fact, sometimes they do

At the time, RAAD issued a statement calling Andrew Allen a “death dealer” and a “career criminal” - allegations his family has always denied.

“During the Troubles, that’s the way things were done,” said William. “You had kangaroo justice.

“I think because policing and legacy issues aren’t fully resolved you still have some people who are wedded to the notion that it’s the only way to deal with anti-social behaviour.

“There’s still this level of control by paramilitaries based within certain areas, except now they pick on people of their own background, their own religion, their own political persuasion, so they’re doing it to themselves.

“I think of that awful phrase that was invented whenever the ceasefires were first called, ‘internal housekeeping’, and I think a certain level of violence seems to be acceptable.

“There is this belief among some people that people who are shot don’t get it for nothing, whereas we know, in fact, sometimes they do.”

Among the latter group is Anthony Moran. Two weeks ago, the 44-year-old taxi driver was shot in both legs by masked men claiming to be from the IRA.

“These people think they can go around and shoot people for no reason,” he told the Derry News. “I think I was shot simply because these men had gone out that night to shoot someone and when they didn’t get their intended target they went for an easy target, which was me.”

Many others have been left maimed by similar attacks. In the 12 months until the end of June, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) recorded 54 shooting incidents, 75 casualties of paramilitary-style assaults and 23 casualties of paramilitary-style shootings.

In addition, there were four “security-related” deaths and 32 bombing incidents, as well as the discovery of 49 firearms, 69kg of explosives, and 4,031 rounds of ammunition.

Paramilitary-style shootings

According to the PSNI, there has been roughly one paramilitary-style shooting every fortnight in the last year; the number of paramilitary-style assaults over the same period is almost three times that.

Headlines have told of fathers taking their sons to be shot 'by appointment' and crying because they had failed to protect their children

Shootings are primarily carried out by dissident republican organisations such as the New IRA - which was formed in 2012 when RAAD, the Real IRA and others merged.

In April 2016, the group was responsible for killing 33-year-old Michael McGibbon in Belfast. He bled to death after being shot in the leg three times; his wife, a nurse, tried unsuccessfully to save him.

The are many such stories behind the statistics. Headlines have told of fathers taking their sons to be shot “by appointment” and crying because they had failed to protect their children; paramedics, phoned in advance, have had to wait to provide treatment until they heard the shot.

For a time, anyone convicted of drug-dealing in Derry could not be identified in court reports, as RAAD was using the names and addresses printed in newspapers to select its victims.

“It’s always been believed that there are certain unwritten rules as regards paramilitary-style shootings,” explained security journalist Eamonn MacDermott.

Everybody who suffers a gunshot to a limb will end up with some degree of discomfort and disability as a result

“The extent of the injury would depend on the extent of the alleged crime, so, for example, a low-level drug-dealer who co-operated would have received a shot through the fleshy part of the calf or thigh of one leg.

“People would have been shot by appointment. They would have been told to be at a certain place at a certain time, and if they turned up the wound wouldn’t have been pleasant but generally it would have been a lot more superficial than it might have been.

“Then, as you move up the scale and you get people who it’s felt are maybe more involved in drug-dealing or who don’t co-operate, the injury could be a lot worse.”

Anti-PSNI graffiti in Derry. The PSNI recorded 23 casualties of paramilitary-style shootings in the 12 months until the end of June.
Anti-PSNI graffiti in Derry. The PSNI recorded 23 casualties of paramilitary-style shootings in the 12 months until the end of June.

Alan McKinney, now a retired emergency consultant, treated many such victims at Altnagelvin hospital in Derry.

“They fire blankly out at somebody whose legs are held out,” he said. “They don’t know the anatomy. The difference between shooting through an artery and missing it is half a centimetre.

“The majority don’t hit a main artery or a nerve, but they may shatter a bone and go through the flesh so they’ll cause considerable pain in the beginning, and there’ll obviously be scarring and there may be some wasting.

“Everybody who suffers a gunshot to a limb will end up with some degree of discomfort and disability as a result.

“They fire a bullet into someone’s leg and expect the health service to pick up the pieces.”

Mediation

It is something that Tommy McCourt is trying to prevent. He’s the manager of Derry-based community organisation Rosemount Resource Centre, which runs Time 2 Choose - a project which mediates between paramilitaries and young people under threat.

He estimates that, in the past three years, the centre has dealt with 200 young people who have been under threat of expulsion, assault or shooting because of their involvement in drugs, joyriding, or other anti-social behaviour.

If the centre becomes aware of a threat, it passes it on to the PSNI, which notifies the individual concerned.

“Our initial role is to try and lift the immediate threat,” said Mr McCourt. “Maybe in the early hours of the morning, somebody has to go out up a back lane and meet some man with a hood and try and talk him out of shooting some young kid.”

The project has faced criticism for apparently bestowing credibility on those who carry out paramilitary-style shootings, but Mr McCourt says his position is clear.

“There’s no ambiguity. We do not believe violence is the answer to social problems, but we’re also pragmatic enough to say it’s not enough to simply say violence is not the answer, and then walk away.

“It’s easy to condemn. We’re not saying whether it’s right or wrong, but what’s important is that somebody steps into that murky water. You can’t swim in a murky stream without getting a bit of muck on your clothes.

“Don’t forget, most of the kids we’re dealing with are ones who’ve dropped through the net.

Shooting people is a knee-jerk reaction, but I think we need to start getting to the roots of the problem

“They’re not the kids getting the 11-plus or going into training or going to youth clubs, they’re the kids who have missed all that and who are walking around the streets at night.

“It’s up to others in the long-term to deal with it through finding political solutions.”

William Allen agrees. “Shooting people is a knee-jerk reaction, but I think we need to start getting to the roots of the problem.

“A huge amount of money has been spent on things like community development, yet it hasn’t really paid dividends in terms of happier and healthier communities.

“We still have anti-social behaviour and we have all these inherited mental-health issues from the Troubles which are being perpetuated by the people that continue the violence.

“There are areas that are effectively living as if it was 20 or 25 years ago, where there are still gunmen on the streets and masked men enforcing their sort of control, and some people are happy enough for them to do that.

“I think it’s sad, and it’s shameful. We’ve created this in society, and it’s shameful.”