Legacy Scandal: ‘There is an urgent need for an inquiry into paramilitary beatings of children,’ says Liam Kennedy

There is no age breakdown of those terrorised in so-called 'punishment' attacks, but PSNI figures show there have been well over 500 such assaults since 1990
There is no age breakdown of those terrorised in so-called 'punishment' attacks, but PSNI figures show there have been well over 500 such assaults since 1990

In the latest essay, LIAM KENNEDY says that agencies that profess themselves to be engaged with human rights will continue to turn a blind eye to the most serious abuses of human rights in our society (for other essays in the series see the link beneath the article):

Growing up in rural Tipperary, I knew all about legacies.

News Letter series for the late summer and autumn of 2018

News Letter series for the late summer and autumn of 2018

They were a frequent topic of conversation at the breakfast table, as my mother and father, sometimes grudgingly, talked about who in the neighbourhood had got a legacy as a result of the death of an aged uncle, aunt or cousin.

These windfall gains were a source of delight and envy, and had the makings of good gossip.

The legacy of the Troubles belongs to another world, and a contested one at that.

Last Thursday on a damp September night I had the privilege of listening to the names of the dead (as set forth in David McKittrick’s magnificent chronicle, Lost Lives), being read aloud in All Souls Church, Elmwood Avenue, Belfast.

Liam Kennedy is professor of history at Queen's University. He is the author of Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Merrion Press, Dublin)

Liam Kennedy is professor of history at Queen's University. He is the author of Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Merrion Press, Dublin)

All Souls, founded in 1707, was paying homage to the many souls of the Troubles. I couldn’t stay for the full four hours, extending beyond midnight as they did. The time taken underlined the extent of the roll call.

The church was packed with empty pews which, if anything, made the ceremony of remembrance arranged by the Rev Chris Hudson all the more poignant.

I wished that Martin McGuinness, Lennie Murphy, Bobbie Sands, Billy Wright might have been beamed into the front pew to reflect on some of the human consequences of their life work.

In addition to the almost 4,000 Troubles-related deaths, or souls, they would have realised also that there are tens of thousands whose lives have been shattered by bombs, bullets and intimidation during

The Northern Terror of the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s.

As we know, though many of us prefer to forget in the interests of ‘peace’, the main killing agency was the Provisional IRA, whose exploits were, and still are, celebrated by Sinn Féin.

Michelle O’ Neill, the northern leader of Sinn Féin, stuck firmly to the traditional script last year when she reminded those attending the ‘Loughgall Martyrs’ Memorial’: ‘We are especially proud of our republican patriot dead and each of our fallen comrades with whom we are gathered to remember, honour and whose lives we celebrate here today.’

I imagine a PUP commemoration of the UVF dead would have been little different.

Not much room there for a concern with human rights or a non-partisan reconstruction of the Troubles.

It will be ever so in the separate, if intertwined worlds of loyalist and republican paramilitarism, hence the need for truth-recovery mechanisms that are not only dispassionate but which distinguish carefully between perpetrators and victims.

Surely it should not need saying, to take but one example, that those who carried out the mass killings at a pub in Loughinisland in June 1994 belong to a very different category to those they mowed down while enjoying a football match on television?

Yet some seek to flatten out such distinctions, to give cover to an armed campaign.

There is one category of victims that particularly concerns me.

This is in part because they are amongst the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. In part also it is because they are largely invisible to most of us.

Above all it is because the victims are children, no doubt wild and unruly at times but children. People from outside Northern Ireland, and many within, find it almost inconceivable that men with masks and weapons can subject children to sadistic assaults or shootings, sometimes by appointment.

As I write, I hear of an attack by the UDA on a teenager in County Antrim in which he was shot in both arms and both legs.

Agencies that profess themselves to be engaged with human rights will continue to turn a Nelsonian blind eye to the most serious and the most frequent abuses of human rights in our society.

In what is one of the central legacies of the Troubles, generations of children have been shot or mutilated by paramilitary gangs.

We do not have a detailed age breakdown of those terrorised in so-called ‘punishment’ attacks across the whole period but since 1990, according to PSNI statistics, well over 500 cases have been recorded.

Imagine how this has affected their schooling, their job prospects, and their relationships with others.

A friend of mine was cornered in his parents’ house in west Belfast by a gang of vigilantes. His father was held captive in the kitchen and forced to listen helplessly as his teenage son was pounded with clubs in the backyard. This went on for some 20 minutes. According to John (not his real name), some of the men were so wound up they got in the way of each other as blows rained down on his defenceless body.

John suffered permanent injuries and each year the trauma of the occasion floods back as the anniversary of the beating comes round. The attack took place in the mid 1980s, more than thirty years ago.

There is an urgent need for a commission of inquiry — separate from all other attempts at truth recovery — into the five-decades of paramilitary-style attacks on children.

It needs to be separate because this is a distinctive category of victims, with particular needs. These victims are also amongst the most difficult to reach.

Such an inquiry might parallel and complement the existing commissions of inquiry into child abuse in institutions run by the state and by clerical orders in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

We are beginning to face up to the extent of historic child abuse in many areas of Irish life but so far we have failed to confront the terrible toll of suffering of the child victims of the Troubles.

Incidentally, loyalists and republicans are about equally responsible for these abuses and so deserve parity of disesteem.

Loyalists have been responsible for just over half of all assaults, and republicans for just over half of all shootings. (This is across all age groups). Most of those who bear the scars are still with us.

The ‘punishment system’, which was an integral part of the paramilitary campaigns in the North, still continues. What we are dealing with is systemic abuse, not the occasional actions of depraved mavericks.

The remit should be wide-ranging and should consider also if political offices and paramilitary-linked groups collaborated in the ‘punishment’ system. There are various models for inquiries out there and they need not be especially expensive.

The D in DUP might well stand for dysfunctional; Sinn Féin is heavily compromised by its past. But might not the SDLP, Alliance Party, Ulster Unionist Party and the Green Party get together to promote this urgent need for truth and justice?

• Liam Kennedy is a professor of history at Queen’s University. He is the author of Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Merrion Press, Dublin)

For other essays in the legacy series, click here