I was very disturbed to read the report of the Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson into the case of four young men who in 1979 made false confessions, in which on 46 occasions she refers to what she calls punishment shootings.
There is no attempt to place the phrase in inverted commas or qualify it in any way.
To describe instances of the many thousands of shootings carried out by republican and loyalist paramilitaries — usually of young adults and often children — as ‘punishment’ is shameful.
It is to our disgrace as a society that after more than 50 years of these invariably premeditated attacks, it is common currency to use the word ‘punishment’, which has the immediate effect of sanitising the violence, and shifting the blame from perpetrator to the victim.
It is hardly surprising that shootings and beatings continue to this day, bringing trauma, fear and physical and psychological misery to many of our most disadvantaged areas.
Nowhere else in the world are children who have been abused dismissed by being told they have been ‘punished’.
I recall talking to a mother of an 18-year-old patient whom I saw after he was shot in the legs by the IRA. She had been warned this would happen. She said the RUC Inspector told her he knew who had done it (she also knew).
When asked what he would do about it he wryly said: ‘You know no one ever gets charged with these offences. And if they were, you would be out of this house the same night.’
Emeritus QUB Professor Liam Kennedy, who wrote the report ‘They shoot children, don’t they’ has been one of the few academics to tackle this huge breach of human rights.
Father Martin Magill and the journalist Leona O’Neill have also been courageously forthright. Sadly they would appear to be rather in the minority.
Orwell noted: ‘If thought can corrupt language, language can also corrupt thought.’
If an organisation such as PONI (Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland), which is expected to be a final arbiter of fair play, casually dismisses what in any other democracy would be seen as one of the most serious crimes as mere ‘punishment’, it’s no wonder we remain a long way from normality.
Words matter, they really do. They set the terms and the tone of any debate.
As a society we must stop using the word ‘punishment’ to describe crimes.
Dr Philip McGarry FRCPsych, Belfast, BT9