New danger for N. Ireland

Paramilitary groups met Monday over 'punishment beatings' as two- wayvigilante violence flares.

Nearly a year ago in Belfast, Andrew Peden made a mistake: He offered a lift in his car to a man involved in a feud between two Northern Ireland Protestant paramilitary groups.

Soon afterward, members of one gang waylaid Mr. Peden, beat him up, and shot him in both legs.

Today Peden, himself a Protestant, is a member of a growing chorus of people calling for the authorities to crack down on a surge of "punishment beatings" being carried out by terrorists on both sides of the province's religious divide.

The rash of cruel but, so far, non-lethal violence is posing a serious threat to the Northern Ireland peace process.

Figures released Monday by the Belfast-based organization Families Against Intimidation and Terror (FAIT), a cross-community organization with both Catholic and Protestant members, indicate that this month alone the Irish Republican Army has carried out four shootings and 12 beatings.

Over the same period, the IRA's Protestant counterparts are said to have shot six people and beaten up 15. FAIT says many families of both communities have been driven from their homes by punishment squads.

Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam on Monday called a meeting of paramilitary groups from both sides to discuss the latest upsurge of paramilitary attacks, which involve not only physical beatings but also so-called "kneecappings." In these, as with Andrew Peden, bullets are fired into victims' legs. Ms. Mowlam called the punishment beatings "barbaric."

Protestant representatives attended the meeting, but Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, boycotted it, claiming it had no power to halt the violence.

THE punishment attacks are posing an acute dilemma for Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, which has a huge political and moral stake in the peace process.

Last week in the House of Commons, Conservative opposition leader William Hague called on Mr. Blair to order a halt to releases from prison of terrorists that have been continuing under the terms of last year's Belfast peace agreement.

Mr. Hague said: "By continuing to release prisoners, the government is throwing away its negotiating cards, and we are getting nearer to a point where there will be no terrorists left in prison."

Blair, however, refused to halt or slow down prisoner releases, arguing that to do so would enrage both religious communities and wreck the peace process.

But later two senior members of Blair's ruling Labour Party backed Hague's call. Harry Barnes, vice chairman of Labour's Northern Ireland committee in the House of Commons, said, "Slowing down prisoner releases as a political sanction sends a tough message to paramilitary leaders."

He added: "Human rights campaigners say there's almost a Wild West situation where paramilitary enforcers strut around with guns sticking out of their trousers."

So far Blair has refused to accept that the punishment beatings violate the Northern Ireland cease-fire because, he says, they do not involve killings or bombings. Such arguments cut little ice with people in Northern Ireland, some of whom have friends or relations who have suffered at the hands of punishment squads.

Part of the problem facing Northern Ireland's police chief, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, is that the squads operate as self-styled vigilantes, claiming that they do a better job of protecting citizens than the police themselves.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) is heavily Protestant, even though Catholics make up more than 40 percent of the province's population.

Sean O'Callaghan, a former IRA commander who has turned against terrorism, claims that Sinn Fein and the IRA are setting out to discredit the RUC by demonstrating that so-called "community groups" are better able to police Catholic districts.

He claims the Sinn Fein-IRA long-term aim is to force the government to replace the RUC with a force more acceptable to republicans. This, however, does not explain why Protestant paramilitary groups appear to be carrying out most punishment beatings.

According to one RUC source, the situation is worsening because one side is retaliating against the other, producing a cycle of violence that threatens to get completely out of control.

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