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Column Parents bringing their children to be kneecapped. Yes, this is Ireland.

Self-styled republican vigilantes are terrorising a city, writes Seamus Breslin – and perceived neglect by authorities is fuelling the fire.

CIRCLING THE SKIES, the police helicopter alerts the public to an all too familiar scenario. With the local grapevine buzzing the word is out, yet another mutilation has been carried out, a ‘punishment’ attack. Parents are faced with what they believe to be a no-win situation: they must bring their own children to be brutally assaulted as they stand close by listening to the screams.

It is an act of barbarism that some would perhaps expect to hear about in the furthest reaches of Afghanistan carried out by the Taliban, but this is the latest form of ‘justice’ carried out here, on the streets of Derry.

What sets this attack apart from others is the forced involvement of parents, who are presented with two options: bring your child to be ‘kneecapped’, or make preparations for their funeral.

This is going to be called a city of culture but how can you call it that when there are people murdering and butchering children?

The mother of murdered Andrew Allen highlights the reality of living in Derry in recent years, as the city prepares to don the crown of UK City of Culture in 2013.

Andrew Allen became the first person executed by the ruthless self-appointed defenders of the people, Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD), when the vigilante group gunned him down in Buncrana, Co Donegal on 9 February this year. Mr Allen’s crime was to be accused of drug dealing, a crime which this shadowy group feels merits the ultimate punishment – death. While he was never convicted of such criminality in a court of law, RAAD – acting as judge, jury, and now executioner – claim to be defending the local community from what they term “death dealers”.

‘Who are they to decide the fate of anyone?’

Who are they to decide the fate of anyone, irrespective of the alleged crime? Do they honestly believe that their warped logic provides all the answers to an endemic drug problem? Their methods failed in the past, and if the rise and frequency of the current attacks show anything, it is the failure of their strategy in the present – drugs are still widely available throughout the city.

As one recent attack showed the moral high ground adopted by this group in its stated aim of eradicating drugs from the streets is somewhat flawed to say the least. One local man, a father from a republican family of unblemished repute in the city, was instructed to produce his son for punishment. His son’s crime was not the sale of drugs, transportation of drugs, or any other involvement in the drugs trade for that matter – no, his crime was to become embroiled in a drunken bar fight standing up to a RAAD enforcer.

For this blatant act of disrespect to RAAD the young man’s father was instructed to bring him to a pre-arranged location in the city’s Bogside area in order to teach him a lesson. His father duly obliged, believing that a good ‘scare’ was all that his son would receive. Instead he was made watch as bullets were pumped into each of the young man’s legs. RAAD’s remit was seemingly changing; no longer content with eradicating drugs, it now appeared that they would also eradicate any form of dissent.

Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has called for people to come forward with information to the PSNI to have the group’s members arrested and jailed; a call previously made by former Provisional IRA hunger striker, Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney, at a recent rally in the city against RAAD’s actions.

‘The blood lust shows no signs of abating’

With a reported 200 young people expelled from Derry alone by the group and more than 50 maimed in punishment-style attack s such as kneecappings, the blood lust of the group shows no signs of abating. In fact, following recent public displays of protest at Derry’s Guildhall Square by various politicians, community workers, and members of the public the group dismissed those taking part and stated that no amount of street protest would divert them from their current course.

Community worker Michael Doherty of the Peace and Reconciliation Group has urged young people not to come for pre-arranged punishment shootings. RAAD now appear to operate an appointment system for their attacks. In recent months two individuals have been shot in the legs, having been brought to a pre-arranged location by their distraught parents, fearful that their sons may very well become the next Andrew Allen. Mr Doherty has stated that some people are opting to take a “flesh wound” in the legs rather than having to uproot families and move away.

One question which appears to vex local people in Derry is the fact that RAAD are not even a proscribed organisation – which itself begs the question, why not? The common feeling is that, unlike other ‘dissident’ republican groups, they offer no threat to the security apparatus of the state as their sole reason d’être is to ‘eradicate the scourge of drug dealers’.

It would be a sad indictment on the PSNI if this were in fact to be the case, as at a local level there is still a suspicion that the police care little for nationalist working class areas, and prefer to leave them to their own devices. It is in such conditions that groups like RAAD indeed tend to thrive, drawing what little support they have from the cynics who believe vigilantism offers the only form of true justice in the absence of effective policing.

Add to this failure of certain political parties to ‘rein in’ errant members and former comrades who lend passive support to the vigilantes and the cycle of degradation and violence will inevitably continue. It is with this in mind that RAAD has attempted to exert influence across the north-west of Ireland.

‘Not in our names’

By not confining its attacks to Derry alone, as the murder of Andrew Allen shows, they have spread their tentacles right across counties Derry, Tyrone, and Donegal, thus attempting to show a broad level of support for their actions. RAAD’s actions have alienated a swathe of young people, thus giving rise to the fear of what might happen if these same people decide they’ve had enough.

What if they arm themselves and a backlash against RAAD erupts on our streets? No one doubts that drugs in our society are an issue of grave concern but education, effective drug rehabilitation programmes, and the rule of law and order are the way to tackle the problem – not the barrel of the gun.

During the economic boom disposable income was there for all to see, and it wasn’t long before the drug of choice in pubs and clubs across Derry became cocaine; the availability of the drug appeared to take everyone by surprise. The current economic climate bringing with it unprecedented levels of unemployment opens up the allure of the drugs trade to young people. Easy money and flash lifestyles appeal to those who see no hope of reaching any level of financial success through employment which offers little more than minimum wage jobs, contributing to the growing number of working poor in our cities.

But surely it would be folly to suggest that the problem stems only from the economic gloom surrounding us at the moment. As mentioned, drugs were awash in the city prior to the birth of RAAD; perhaps the lucrative profits involved are what have drawn this group to the fore.

With the frequency and ferocity of RAAD’s attacks increasing, ask anyone in Derry for their opinion and you find a common response – not in our names. As Derry tries to shake off the legacy of the troubles, which brought with it little more than anguish and misery, bombed out buildings, and a divided community, there are those who claim to love their city, the Walled City, the City of Culture – and yet by their actions ensure that its continuing legacy is that of Derry, the Feared City.

Seamus Breslin is a married father of three, and the chair of the Foyle branch of the Labour Party.

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