Derry’s PSNI chief has branded paramilitary threats to children “obscene” after Sinn Fein highlighted claims that a number of young people have been threatened with expulsion and violence in the city.
Sinn Féin Councillor Sandra Duffy said she was “disgusted” by the fresh reports of intimidation and threats from criminal gangs towards children in the Greater Shantallow area.
Colr. Duffy said she has had some very disturbing reports from residents of threats against minors.
“These threats range from assault to expulsion from the area. This is totally unacceptable and must stop,” she said.
“These gangs have been acting with impunity for years because of the intimidation and fear they instil in individuals and families. They are a blight on our community and must be resisted.”
She added that it was “common knowledge” that such gangs have been demanding large sums of money from individuals and families “as an alternative to assaults, shootings and expulsions over a long period of time.
“But the extension of their criminal activities to minors and children is a deplorable new low which must be exposed and resisted,” she said.
“I would appeal to residents to report threats or demands for money to the PSNI and if you do not feel comfortable in doing so then alternatively report it to the local Community Safety Team or a Sinn Féin representative and they will contact the relevant agency. I call on all elected and other public representatives to support this appeal.”
When asked if police were aware of or investigating any threats, PSNI Superintendent Gordon McCalmont said police do not discuss the security of individuals and that no inference should be drawn from this.
“However,” he said, “if we receive information that a person’s life may be at risk, we will inform them as we never ignore anything which may put an individual at risk.
“Any threat to harm a child is completely obscene and there can be absolutely no justification to shoot or beat them. This is a complete violation of their human rights and should not be tolerated by any rational person. Our children deserve to be protected not punished.
‘NOT MANLY BEHAVIOUR’
“Paramilitaries do not protect children or communities, they try to control them for their own insidious gains, including trying to cement their status or line their own pockets. Threatening to harm a child, or indeed maiming and injuring a child, is just plain wrong on every level. To those who think this is acceptable I would ask a simple question: ‘What sort of a man resorts to putting on a mask, picking up a gun or a bat and shooting or beating a youngster in their own community – someone they know? What sort of a man enjoys creating fear and using such extreme violence against a child? I would suggest this is not manly behaviour at all, and is in fact the complete opposite!”
Supt. McCalmont said the PSNI has already issued a challenge to “those paramilitaries, those terrorist groups, who carry out paramilitary style attacks, which as yet has fallen on deaf ears.”
“I will reiterate it today: ‘Call a ceasefire of violence against all children – children in your own communities and those across Northern Ireland, guaranteeing them and their parents that you will no longer beat or shoot children or teenagers.’
“The people behind paramilitary style attacks should be seen for what they are, hypocritical thugs trying to exert coercive control over communities by creating a climate of fear.
“My appeal is also to communities not to simply shrug and ignore attacks but instead give information to the police so that we can arrest and charge the people involved in carrying out these appalling shootings and physical assaults for the criminality they are involved in. Help protect the children – they are the future of your community. We have a choice - this doesn’t need to be the future. We all bear a responsibility to ensure that everyone, including our children, can grow up in a society free of coercion and fear. Work with us to make your community safer, providing a better and brighter future for our children, by giving the police any information you have to help us put a stop to all paramilitary activity.”
Anthony Harbinson, chair of the Tackling Paramilitarism Programme Board, meanwhile said the “coercive control exerted by paramilitary groups” in some places is one of the issues being addressed though the Tackling Paramilitarism Programme, which is a series of commitments aimed at tackling paramilitarism, criminality and organised crime.
“As part of the programme, partner agencies are working together to deal specifically with this issue in relation to young people as we recognise it as an area of concern. Indeed, one of the 38 commitments relates to the development of a specific programme to prevent vulnerable young people being drawn into paramilitary activity. This includes those who are vulnerable to becoming the victims of threat or attack by paramilitaries as well as those who may be vulnerable to recruitment.”
He added that the ‘Ending the Harm’ campaign, recently launched as part of the programme, aims to raise awareness of paramilitary style attacks and the impact they have. “It also highlights the fact paramilitary groups aren’t protecting communities, they are exerting control and exploiting communities through criminal activities such as intimidation, protection rackets and drug dealing as well as paramilitary style assaults,” Mr .Harbinson said.
“We are keen to signpost people, including young people and their families, to the help and support available and we have a specific section on the website, www.endingtheharm which contains relevant information. We recognise the harm caused by these groups within some local communities but by working together, we can loosen the grip they hold and bring their criminal activity to an end.”