New Danger for N. Ireland Paramilitary Groups Met Monday over 'Punishment Beatings' as Two- Wayvigilante Violence Flares

Article excerpt

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. …