BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Like so many wild-eyed young men of Catholic west Belfast, Seamus Clark liked to drink hard and speed recklessly about town in stolen cars. Worse, his friends and family say, was the fact that "Shamy" had a proud mouth around the wrong people.
That combination made Clark a prime candidate for punishment--not by Northern Ireland's police and legal system, but at the Byzantine hands of local Irish Republican Army gun squads.
In December, 1987, a month after neighborhood vigilantes pulled him from a stolen car and beat him unconscious, five masked IRA men came knocking on his door. They ordered his parents and siblings upstairs, turned up the volume on the television, pinned him to the floor and fired five bullets into his knees and ankles.
Last April the faceless men returned, clubbed Clark severely with bats in the kitchen and gave him 48 hours to get out of Belfast. Today, 22-year-old Clark is hiding out in a small town south of the city and faces amputation of his failing right leg.
Clark's story, which is not unusual, illustrates the quip popular in west Belfast circles that "there's no law, but there's order."
In a bizarre outgrowth of Northern Ireland's two decades of civil unrest, paramilitary gun squads throughout the province have shot more than 1,500 people and in other ways assaulted at least another 350 as punishment for "antisocial behavior"--the local umbrella term for car stealing, shoplifting, drug trafficking, rape, prostitution and a range of other crimes.
Such trial-by-gun-squad is not confined to IRA-dominated Roman Catholic neighborhoods. Police spokesmen say that local "hoods," as well as political opponents, are regularly dealt with on the Protestant, working-class side of town by members of the Ulster Defense Assn., Ulster Volunteer Force, Red Hand Commandos and other loyalist gangs.
But the IRA's prominent role in punishment shootings was singled out for criticism last month by Peter Brooke, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland. He said British security forces wanted to get the IRA "off the backs of the people."
"There is no trial, no legal process," he said. "Instead there is the knock on the door at night, the cold fear of the victim and the weeks and months in the hospital. Or the final and enforced departure from home and family ties into exile . . . or the hood, the bullet in the back of the head and the sad funeral."
The province's official police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, has recorded more than 100 punishment shootings so far this year, plus another 65 punishment beatings. This form of punishment can involve the use of "hurley bats," used in Gaelic hockey, or "breeze blocking," in which a cinder block is dropped onto a person's legs until they are heard to break. Punishment shootings vary in intensity--first-time offenders often being shot once or twice through the fleshy thigh, while others get a "six-pack" of bullets through the elbows, knees and ankles.
Compared to the carnage of a typical American city, the numbers of such shootings may seem relatively minor. But in Northern Ireland, with a total population of 1.58 million, the numbers are significant. Nearly everyone in the insular world of west Belfast knows someone--often several people--who have been "done by the Rah" (slang for IRA).
Sinn Fein, the IRA's legal political wing that commands majority support within the high-unemployment Catholic ghettos, maintains that such "kneecapping" and other punishments serve as a useful and locally accepted deterrent.
"Punishment shootings and beatings are the end of a very long process, which begins essentially with complaints being made by concerned citizens," said Richard MacAuley, a Sinn Fein spokesman, seated inside one of the party's six public advice centers. "There's an expectation, in the absence of confidence in the police force, that republicans will fill the gap."
He cited one highly publicized example recently, when a woman was gang-raped by seven men in the Divis Flats, a Catholic area of high-rises just west of downtown Belfast.
"About a hundred local women organized a picket to demand that something be done," MacAuley said. "They didn't go to the RUC (constabulary) barracks in the area. They came to this building to demand that the republican movement do something."
The perpetrators fled the country before they could be shot, MacAuley said, noting that "if they come back to Belfast, one would expect very stern and harsh action to be taken against them."
How IRA gunmen gradually gained their role as de facto police in many nationalist areas of Northern Ireland, and particularly in west Belfast, is a matter of debate. But it followed the Protestant-Catholic riots and introduction of British troops onto the streets in 1969.
Since then, the Royal Ulster Constabulary has remained more than 90% Protestant and has been viewed by many Catholics here as the enemy.