Paramilitaries 'coerced young people with drug debts to riot for £80'

UTV Correspondent Gareth Wilkinson reports

Young people with drug debts were coerced to take part in rioting in Northern Ireland by paramilitary groups, a Westminster committee has heard.

Evidence was given by a community worker outlining how a user's debt had been reduced by £80 for doing so.

Megan Phair, a co-ordinator of the Journey to Empowerment Programme and member of the Stop Attacks Forum, said the tactic is used by both loyalist and dissident republican groups to force people onto the streets.

Ms Phair said some of the young people who took part in serious rioting at Lanark Way, close to a peace line off the Shankill Road in Belfast, in 2021 had been ordered to do so over drug debts.

The disorder, which followed a protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, was widely condemned.

She described paramilitaries putting people in debt bondage.

"In 2021, the Lanark Way riots... young people were rioting to clear drug debt, we were told that," she told MPs.

"And if you look at the Easter Rising march, dissident republican groups were also using young people.

"From what young people have told me, it was up to £80 - if you riot you can get £80 of drug debt cleared.

"It's shocking that that's the tactic they are using. They're not stupid - they're using these tactics and young people are terrified, they don't have £50, they don't have £100, but they can go out and riot.

"But then these young people, who we can argue are victims of exploitation and coercion, are being criminalised in the same system which is meant to protect them."

She called for a holistic approach to tackling paramilitarism, involving the health service as well as police, and a safeguarding strategy for vulnerable young people.

The issue of paramilitary-style attacks was also discussed at the committee meeting on Wednesday morning.

Paul Smyth, executive director of Politics In Action, and also a member of the Stop Attacks Forum, urged that the term "punishment attack" is not used.

The forum was set up in 2017 as a pressure group against the attacks.

He described the term "punishment attack" as "very misleading", implying "there's some sort of due process, which there never is".

He compared the situation to the Taliban in Afghanistan, saying "very similar things are happening in our own community" yet people "don't seem to care".

"We need much better dialogue between communities and the police in terms of what community policing should look like," he told MPs, adding that recent warnings about funding issues in police affecting the services are "extremely worrying".

"Paramilitary assaults tend to most of the time happen to the most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable communities.

"So there are people who are often perceived as being a nuisance in those communities, so it's quite easy for the paramilitaries to act against them and it's often for what the police might describe as anti-social behaviour - or that's the accusation.

"So we're very worried that the kind of reduction in terms of policing is going to make vulnerable people even more vulnerable."

The committee is examining the effects of paramilitary activity and organised crime on society in Northern Ireland.

In a second session, Victims Commissioner Ian Jeffers said 25 years on from the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement there is a vacuum in terms of dealing with the past. "From PSNI data 32% of organised crime groups operate with direct links to paramilitaries, so we have got to have the debate, how do we encourage those paramilitaries to come to the table, and ultimately get them off the scene, and then you deal with the criminality," he told MPs.

"There is that grey area at the minute, there's a supposed credibility that the paramilitaries carry, that is a throw over to the Troubles, so we've got to look at what is the road map for reconciliation and then you can start to address that."

Wave Trauma Centre chief Sandra Peake said during the Troubles the paramilitary groups had a focus of external violence, but have since "brought the violence internally within their own communities".

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