110.jpgNo trial. No jury. No judge. Straight to execution.

Well, not quite execution – a walk of shame.

Two men were forced to walk up and down the Shankill road in Belfast wearing mock-up sandwich boards proclaiming: “I am a burglar and a thief” and reportedly getting hit with walking sticks by a few little old ladies who were passing by at the time. Of course this wasn’t an official government sanctioned and court enforced punishment. It was paramilitary vigilante action taken against two men who, allegedly, had done a bit of burglary and theft (according to the sandwich boards).

Was it just? Fair? Justified? Justifiable? Excusable? Understandable?

Radio presenter Stephen Nolan, who bills himself as the voice of the people, has been having some angry airwave exchanges with the very people of which he is supposedly “the voice” because a great many of them think the action was justified, with one caller accusing Nolan of living in an ivory tower with no notion of what is going on in some problematic areas (an accusation which pissed Nolan off no end). A BBC reporter was sent to the Shankill and found, unsurprisingly, that many people were indeed in favour of the action. Approaching one little old lady (armed with a walking stick) a reporter asked, “Is it right for people to take the law into their own hands in this way?” only to be met with the retort: “Is it right that these people get away with breaking into people’s houses and robbing pensioners while the police do nothing? It’s the least they deserve the wee bollockses.” (Note to US and UK mainland readership: “wee bollockses” is a Northern Irish phrase meaning something like “little rascals,” only a bit less polite and a tad more disdainful).

I think this little granny sums up how a lot of people feel. Most people agree that it’s wrong to take the law into their own hands. Libertarians certainly hold to the need for objective laws and law enforcement, without which mob rule beckons. So, in principle the correct response to the reporter is: “No, of course not.” But in practice it is understandable why the woman gave the answer she did. The police in Northern Ireland are perceived by many as about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike. In fact, when they were called about this incident it took them 1 hour to respond. 1 hour. It takes 20 minutes to walk from one end of the Shankill road to the other and there are several police stations within 10 minutes. I’ve lived on the Shankill road for just over 4 years and the police presence is incredibly low. In fact on one occasion we were outside the city and there was rioting on the Shankill road. We called a local police station to find out if any roads were blocked and what the general situation was only to be told, and I quote: “You tell us mate, we’re the last to know anything.” Many people in the area are frustrated when the dogs in the street know who has just committed some given crime while the police are often totally powerless to act, confined to their stations filling out forms.

Let’s face it, if these two guys were guilty we shouldn’t feel terribly sorry for them. But, it’s a pity that so many people support this paramilitary sanctioned action. A few words come to mind here when paramilitaries dish out this kind of “justice”: pot, kettle & black. Paramilitary groups should never get away with masking their own criminality under a PR stunt of aiding pensioners and the victims of crime. Lets face it aren’t these paramilitaries the same ones who have flooded the area with dodgy drugs. Isn’t the same guys who have killed, maimed, beaten, bribed, blackmailed and terrorised for years? Should they not all be walked up the Shankill road wearing sandwich boards proclaiming: “I’m a murdering thieving vandalising paramilitary bastard”?

Perhaps there is a lesson in this for officialdom. Maybe this is the kind of justice people want to see. Maybe we could have a Friday afternoon “flogging event” down at the city hall. We could have live music and afterwards thugs from across the city can be brought onto the stage to have their pants pulled down and get an ass whipping from little old ladies wielding wet towels or something.

Or alternatively if our government could stop forcing the police into an administrative straight jacket and actually let them police. Many police officers are themselves frustrated by the red tape that binds them. And perhaps if the government wasn’t so obsessed with throwing millions of pounds on thousands of useless projects – from the arts to dodgy new businesses to “fact finding” missions where local politicians swan off across the globe at taxpayers expense – there might actually be more left over in the pot for law enforcement. Libertarians vary on whether taxes are justified for law enforcement and defence. That’s not a dispute that needs to be settled here. The fact of the matter is that we are being taxed, so lets make a strong case that the money is spent on things that matter: policing – not the arts, is a good place to begin.

Paramilitaries and the people who support them are to blame for these kinds of things, but let us never forget the role that government plays. The government could very easily knock the paramilitaries off their self-righteous pedestal and dismantle the support base for such vigilante action. Provide a proper law and order service. It will remain a fact that in the absence of proper policing people will take action themselves: if officialdom can’t and won’t help, people will help themselves. Who can blame them for that?