- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2000

BELFAST An agreement that brought Protestants and Catholics back together in a power-sharing government yesterday has done nothing to help young men like Darren Smith, a 22-year-old Protestant who was forced to flee the country last week or face almost certain death.

The threat of gunfire and bombings gave way to a heated debate over the use of the British flag yesterday as Northern Ireland's legislature convened for the first time since February. Britain suspended the government because of an impasse over Irish Republican Army disarmament that was resolved just last month.

But while the violence that took a deadly toll across religious lines for 30 years largely has come to a halt, the grim men of the paramilitaries on both sides continue to use brutal beatings and murder to enforce their will within their own communities.

Mr. Smith's ordeal began with a squabble over a game of pool in February. He and a friend got into a fistfight, but neither was badly hurt and he gave it little thought afterward.

But Mr. Smith lived in a rough housing estate just outside Belfast, and his friend's father was a top commander of a Protestant paramilitary. The father came to Mr. Smith's home the next day and told him to leave the country within 24 hours or be shot.

Mr. Smith refused and, a few days later, the friend's father and three other men stopped him on the street and beat him with baseball bats until his legs and an arm were broken.

When Mr. Smith still refused to leave, his parents' home was nearly destroyed in a firebomb attack. Undertakers phoned to see if they could handle Mr. Smith's funeral arrangements, having read his obituary in the local paper.

It was only when a police inspector warned Mr. Smith that the paramilitaries were determined to kill him that he agreed to leave. Last week, he boarded a flight to Manchester, England, with a one-way ticket and a single piece of luggage to start a new life.

"Mr. Smith's case is unfortunate but not unusual," said Vincent McKenna, director of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Bureau, who over the past two years has helped hundreds of people to leave Northern Ireland for fear of the paramilitaries.

He said he learned about Mr. Smith through another paramilitary victim, now living in Wales, whose leg had to be amputated after a punishment shooting.

Anything broadly defined as "anti-social behavior" from thievery to insulting a paramilitary commander might merit an attack. Since the cease-fire between Catholics and Protestants, the number of such attacks has increased.

"There have been over 200 people shot and mutilated since the Good Friday Agreement was signed" in 1998, said Mr. McKenna. "Over 300 have been hospitalized and hundreds more have simply been intimidated. This is the underbelly of the peace process."

Hours after the Irish Republican Army broke a deadlock in the Northern Ireland peace process early last month with a promise to dispose of their illegal arms, Liam Cairns, 19, was nearly killed in a paramilitary punishment attack.

Mr. Cairns, a Catholic, was abducted from his sister's Belfast home in the early hours by a masked punishment squad. Hooded and bound, he was driven to a vacant lot where he was hung by the legs from a steel fence and beaten with hammers, nail-studded bats and a pickax.

After the gang left, Mr. Cairns managed to free his legs. Barely conscious, he heard laughter and thought he had been found, but it was his attackers coming back to beat him again. Finally abandoned and left for dead, Mr. Cairns was found by a neighbor who heard his moaning.

Doctors required five hours of surgery and 17 pints of blood to stabilize Mr. Cairns, who had suffered multiple fractures, neck trauma and a punctured lung. Metal rods and screws now secure his broken limbs.

"I don't see things getting better until we have a situation where the courts and the politicians are willing to stop it," Mr. McKenna said. "Until then, why should [the paramilitaries] stop terrorizing people?

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