CRIME IN PUNISHMENT
There is little room for doubt. One of the major problems perceived by many as facing those more deprived nationalist communities is the anti-social scourge. Sinn Fein councillor Michael Brown commenting in the Andersonstown News some time ago said most of the complaints to the party were as a result of concerns over anti-social behaviour. One of the most warmly greeted articles produced by Fourthwrite magazine was that in Issue 2 by G. Bradley expressing extreme irritation at the ongoing activities of anti-social elements.
Some are inclined to think that the crime problem is a localised phenomenon produced for the most part as a result of the IRA ceasefire which has been exploited by 'the hoods' so that they may come into their own. I recall engaging Liz Curtis in the AP/RN on this very subject in 1996, when she argued against punishment shootings and for tackling social problems. There was much concern that the peace process was leaving the most vulnerable in these communities open season to anyone who felt the spread on the table was fruit for the monkey.
But on reflection the Provisional IRA cessation can only, if at all, partly explain any rise in criminal activity. Memories cannot be so short that the 'ceasefire leads to crime' school forget that the Whiterock area of West Belfast seemed to be subjected to a perpetual reign of crime long before any peace process. And are we supposed to believe that the absence of a Provisional IRA campaign is the reason that crime has increased elsewhere also?
1999 saw the largest increase in crime in London for a number of years. Attacks of a violent nature rose by 19% while murder was up by about one third. The following was written by a person residing in the British capital:
Every week, one hears of new horrors: of muggings; of gangs of youth attacking old people for their handbags and jewellery, and young people for their mobile phones. You see them lurking outside the local newsagent's, the railway station, and in the shopping malls. They seem to be everywhere. Everyone is afraid of the wild children ... this growing army of young people will become an increasingly disaffected and dangerous part of our community.
The language and the alarm sounds remarkably like that expressed in West Belfast. There is without question a need for accountable policing that protects communities making them safe to live in, where people feel home is a refuge from the normal woes of any day rather than a potential site of attack. But is South American style capital punishment or Saudi Arabian maiming by torture the type of 'solution' West Belfast requires? Are we to follow the 'revolutionary' example of South Africa where there has been a return to 'necklacing' in response to crime? Are less incidents of joyriding for increased episodes of torture a healthy exchange? At best such measures are only a temporary palliative, ridding the community of this or that turbulent individual but in no way solving the problem. At worst the long-term effects appear horrendous and produce a picture of republicans as barbaric. Small wonder that a recent critic could write that 'today the word "republican" conjures up a baseball bat smeared with blood'.
It is not good enough to reduce the incidences of punishment attacks and other such unsavoury methods of community justice to the undeniable wish on the part of the Provisional IRA to maintain control. Nor is there much validity in the frequently heard assertion that such attacks are all down to the sadism of 'truceleers' and 'Good Friday Soldiers' looking a piece of the safe action. A common complaint from a tortured community relates to just how difficult and drawn out it actually is to get the Provisional IRA to take punitive action. There would seem to be few Provisional IRA volunteers who revel in this activity. Most find punishment beatings at best a sordid activity forced on volunteers because the leadership had decided to take the gun out of 'community justice' to facilitate the emergence of a peace process. Presumably, the shift was hardly humanitarian but more in line with the leadership being able to more easily deny baseball bat wielders as IRA volunteers than it would be men with guns.
It would be foolish to deny that in the search for alternatives to the use of physical force against 'hoods' some suggested options have demonstrably failed. But physical force has not worked either. Writing in the Irish News last July on the scourge of joyriding, Briedge Gadd - who through her work in the Probation Service has probably met more offenders than most - made the following point
It is clear that punishing the miscreants alone does not solve the problem ... punishments that included not just imprisonment but also serious physical assaults from paramilitaries ... Surely it is not too much to ask that as a society we should try to understand why some young people, particularly from some areas of West Belfast are set on such disastrous paths, where not even the threat of physical mutilation will stop them in their tracks
Clearly, if RUC figures are correct then Belfast has a 2,000 strong community of joy riders. 4000 legs and 4000 arms to break requires a lot of work and a limitless supply of baseball bats.
Despite the 'ceasefire leads to crime' school, joyriding in the Irish Republic has reached its highest level for over 15 years, according to the Garda. Mr Dave Farrington, author of a report on joyriding launched by the Dublin Minister for Justice earlier this year said 'It's been going on for nearly 20 years and it's definitely not going away.' He maintains that the fundamental underlying cause is socio-economic disadvantage. 'Economically deprived local authority estates are where recurring 'joyriding' is found,' he said.
If this is true then it would seem that the causes of economic deprivation rather than deviant individuals need to be tackled. At present Britain's administration in the North of Ireland is helping to manage the implementation of right wing economic measures. Anti-capitalism protestors do not need to travel to Genoa to confront the beast of laissez faire economics. It is sitting here in our midst in Belfast's very own White House.