'We didn't treat farm animals like that'
Reports of punishment beatings in the North led a quiet academic to confront the brutality behind them.
Few care about the Northern Irish "punished" by paramilitaries with knee- cappings or terrible beatings with nail-studded baseball bats, iron bars or hammers. Though many did nothing worse than cheek a thug or nick a car, they were seen by many as the dregs of society and had no one in public life to stick up for them
One exception is my friend Liam Kennedy, a slight, gentle Queen's academic from a small farm in Tipperary. A graduate in food science from University College Cork, Liam experienced what he described as a "Pauline conversation to history", took a Ph.d at the University of York and went to work at Queen's.
His scholarly preoccupations were with rural long-term social change in Ireland from the 17th to the 20th centuries. In conversation with Liam you'll find yourself talking about bastardy in rural Ireland or delving into family folklore about dowries. An unsung hero, for decades he has been challenging paramilitaries of all stripes over their brutal treatment of the vulnerable in their communities. He has the mannerisms of the preoccupied scholar he is, but also an acute eye and ear for what goes on around him in Belfast, where he has lived for almost 30 years.
Last Monday, amid the uproar over IRA handling of child sexual abuse, Liam went to Dublin to launch They Shoot Children, Don't They? (available at michaelnugent.com).
A meticulous review of official PSNI statistics, it shows that between 1990 and 2013 94 children were shot and 166 badly beaten by loyalist paramilitaries and 73 shot and 178 beaten by their republican equivalents. He called for a cross-border commission of inquiry into physical as well as sexual abuse of children by paramilitaries.
A free-thinking left-winger, as an economic and social historian Liam's concern for ordinary people was reflected in his Northern Ireland activism. In the 1970s, he discounted stories about paramilitary violence towards their own. "After all, the UDA, the UVF and the Provisional IRA were the self-styled defenders of their communities. How could they be involved in shooting up their own people?" Then, in the 1980s, "I read some reports in the Irish News and saw the pictures of young men on hospital beds with heavily-bandaged legs and disfigured faces. They always seemed to be alone, which was disturbing. So, the nightmare was real after all. I had a sense of moral outrage and revulsion that didn't come primarily from my socialist convictions but from a deeper place which I think must have been my rural Catholic upbringing. We didn't treat farm animals like that, still less human beings."
Involvement in peace groups like New Consensus and the Peace Train followed: his first ever picket was of UDA headquarters. Then, in 1991, he became involved in supporting two young men under threat of "direct military action" from the IRA, who took refuge in Newry Cathedral.
Liam stayed with them during "a tense stand-off involving the police, the Church and the Provisionals" and a public meeting in support of the IRA action organised by local Sinn Féin. The men fled the Cathedral but were eventually allowed back to Newry after various mediation efforts. Publicity worked.
"Increasingly we came to see our work in exposing the brutality of the paramilitaries against their own communities in terms of human rights violations. What we were seeing, particularly in relation to 'punishment' beatings that went on for 20 minutes or more, was the torture and mutilation of young people, with all the physical and psychological damage that went with that. All the time the political representatives of loyalism and republicanism spoke in terms of euphemisms such as 'rough justice' and the need to 'defend the community' against elements within." And Dublin and London seemed indifferent.
Later, Liam would reflect that, given an average of six men per attack, there must be hundreds of child-abusers in the IRA, UDA and UVF. "Not only were the victims maimed and damaged but the perpetrators were brutalised as well. Like Nazi camp guards. I am told some of these are alcoholics nowadays and seriously troubled."
To highlight this issue, Liam stood in the 1997 General Election as an independent human rights candidate in West Belfast - "a black spot for human rights abuses, mainly by republican paramilitaries but also by Shankill loyalists. I questioned Gerry Adams on these issues at his opening press conference, having narrowly avoided on the way in the attentions of Terry 'Cleaky' Clarke, a convicted terrorist, well-known member of punishment-beating squads who was in charge of security for Sinn Fein on the day." (When Clarke died in 2000, Gerry Adams's tribute in An Phoblacht described him as "a good and decent human being".)
Adams told Liam "he was totally opposed to 'punishments' and that they were counter-productive." Liam believed him for a while, but the violence escalated and "some of the worst beatings and shootings continued to take place in his constituency, on his watch."
In 2001, Liam published the first edition of his report on child victims, where "in some but not all respects the orange and green paramilitaries appear as mirror images of each other." After the murder of Robert McCartney in Magennis' bar in 2005 and the Sinn Fein cover-up exposed internationally by his sisters' campaign, Liam stood for West Belfast again in the General Election: after the count, Adams sat poker-faced as Liam spoke at length of paramilitary brutality.
Last week there was a concerted attack on him by Sinn Fein claiming that as a political opponent his evidence is worthless. That won't stop him. He's as tenacious as he's compassionate.