Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary



  1.  The problem of housing relocation in Northern Ireland following intimidation or threat is a complex one. It involves a range of different types of victims who are singled out for attack or intimidation for different reasons and must also be considered in the context of the overall pattern of paramilitary intimidation.

  2.  The main categories of people affected in this way are:

    (i)  Victims of sectarian intimidation

      —  who are attacked because of their perceived religious or political beliefs.

    (ii)  Victims of paramilitary feuds

      —  who are attacked by members of their own community because they are seen as being associated with or supporting a different paramilitary faction.

    (iii)  Members of security forces/prison officers/public officials

      —  intimidated or targeted because of their profession or role in the criminal justice system.

    (iv)  Alleged criminals

      —  those whom the paramilitaries alleged are guilty of petty crime, drug dealing, or "anti-social" behaviour.

    (v)  Disputes with paramilitaries

      —  people who have stood up to paramilitary threats or spoken out against their activities.

    (vi)  Victims of racial intimidation

      —  selected for attack for purely racial motives.

  3.  Each of these areas is explored in greater depth later in this paper. Where possible, we will present what reliable information we have to quantify these problems, but there are very significant problems with the information available in this area.


  4.  The statistical information in this area is spread across a number of different Government agencies. These include, for example, police, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, other social landlords, Social Services, Victim Support Groups.

  5.  There may be overlaps between the information held by the various agencies. At the same time we know that many victims do not report incidents to police and do not wish them to be reported to police for a variety of motives. Even where police do become aware of incidents, victims often refuse to co-operate in or assist any Police investigation, very often because they fear that this will result in further attacks on them.


  6.  In working class areas in the main urban conurbations, public sector housing is often segregated along political/religious lines. This situation has developed since the serious inter-communal rioting of the late 1960s/early 1970s, when thousands of people were forced to move home as paramilitaries on both sides sought to claim territory and exclude all opposition from "their" area.

  7.  In some cases these boundaries have a clear physical form—the "peace line" barriers in Belfast are an example. In other areas a major road can act as a recognised dividing line with different communities living on either side of the road.

  8.  In rural areas the boundaries are often less well defined but there are some country towns where different parts of the town or different estates are seen as Protestant or Catholic, Nationalist or Unionist. There is also a perception in some areas of concerted long-term campaigns to force members of one religion or another out of rural areas.

  9.  It should be stressed that most areas of Northern Ireland are peaceful, most of the time, and that in many areas communities live a peaceful co-existence. However, there are also serious problems of sectarian attacks or intimidation, very often focused into a relatively few areas.

  10.  Sectarian attacks tend to happen sporadically throughout the year but rise to a peak in the weeks before the Twelfth of July, when the risks of inter-communal conflict are highest. The attacks can take the form of:

    (i)  broken windows;

    (ii)  other criminal damage to cars/property;

    (iii)  anonymous threats/bullets sent through the posts;

    (iv)  assaults;

    (v)  petrol bomb/arson attacks;

    (vi)  pipe bombs;

    (vii)  murder.

  11.  The most difficult problems often arise:

    (i)  along the community interfaces, where tension is highest and local residents are most vulnerable; and

    (ii)  where there are isolated individuals or groups living within a larger, different community.

  12.  Within the last two months, for example, we have seen a series of sectarian attacks in different areas of Northern Ireland, including:

    (i)  Larne; and

    (ii)  North Antrim.

  These have included assaults, petrol bombings, arsons and pipe bombs.

  13.  Police attempt to counter these incidents by:

    (i)  liaison with community leaders on both sides to try to defuse tensions, prevent problems escalating, or return them to normality as quickly as possible after the incident;

    (ii)  promoting cross-community initiatives to reduce tension;

    (iii)  maximum use of whatever intelligence may be available and close liaison with the communities to focus patrols on key areas at the most difficult times;

    (iv)  effective investigations;

    (v)  along interfaces, long-term options to design out areas of conflict;

    (vi)  where necessary, saturation patrolling by police, with Army support, to prevent inter-community violence.

  14.  Obviously these preventative measures often work best along interface areas and it is much more difficult to protect isolated individuals living in an area. The reality is that police cannot provide 24 hour, seven day protection to everyone and often individuals will feel forced to move home after an attack or threat.


  15.  This has predominantly been an issue within the Loyalist community. Until 1998 there were relatively few problems but various "Loyalist" areas in Belfast have long been associated with one or another of the main Loyalist paramilitary groups. The boundaries of these were not as rigid as the religious boundaries in housing.

  16.  From about 1998 there have been a series of feuds among the main Loyalist paramilitary groups. These have included:

    (i)  a feud between the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in Portadown; and

    (ii)  a wider feud between members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in other areas across Northern Ireland.

  17.  There are a series of motivations for these, including:

    (i)  personal disputes between senior figures in the various organisations;

    (ii)  control of rackets (including drugs, counterfeiting and extortion);

    (iii)  attempts to recruit and extend the power base of the organisations.

  18.  Over the last three years tensions among the Loyalist groups increased significantly. This was marked by a major increase in the painting of slogans and wall murals in Loyalist areas and flying flags to denote the territories of the various groups.

  19.  In 1998-99, for example, in North Antrim the dispute between the UVF and UDA led to threats, attacks on homes and street fights. Each organisation sought to take control of housing estates in some towns by excluding all those associated with or seen as supporting the other group.

  20.  This year, the violence centred on Belfast where a feud broke out between the UVF and UDA in the Shankill area and spread to other areas. A total of seven people were shot dead. In the Shankill Road area alone, 277 families asked to be rehoused because of threats of violence. A further 71 in North Belfast/Newtownabbey were similarly affected. It should be noted that these figures only refer to public sector housing moves, not those by owner occupiers.

  21.  From a police viewpoint, this is one of the most difficult types of violence to deal with. It is often random, unpredictable and involves neighbours attacking neighbours within a community.

  22.  Again, the general police response is:

    (i)  to work closely with community leaders to try to prevent attacks taking place and encourage mediation between the groups;

    (ii)  effective use of intelligence to target key areas at key times;

    (iii)  pre-emptive operations to prevent attacks and arrest those involved; and

    (iv)  where necessary, saturation patrolling by police, with Army support, to deter attacks and reassure the wider community.

  23.  These incidents illustrate the difficulties of obtaining reliable information on this problem. In view of the nature of these incidents, many of those forced to move home were unwilling to co-operate with police. The RUC was also aware of attacks on homes and incidents that were never "formally" reported to them or other public agencies.


  24.  Public officials, especially those associated with the criminal justice system, have long been the target of targeting, intimidation and threats in Northern Ireland. These problems have ranged from:

    (i)  specific intelligence that individuals were being targeted for attack by paramilitaries; to

    (ii)  relatively minor attacks on homes and vehicles.

  25.  The Northern Ireland Housing Executive operates a Special Purchase of Evacuated Dwelling (SPED) scheme which will purchase the home of those owner occupiers who are forced to move because of such threats. It should be noted that the SPED scheme is open to all owner occupiers but, because of the pattern of threats in the past, historically around 40 per cent of all applications have been from police officers. Recently, however, this has dropped to around 12 per cent.

  26.  It should be noted that these figures only reflect the cases where owner occupiers elected to move home. In the majority of cases, owner occupiers do not move, and these figures only give a flavour of the more extreme end of the spectrum of intimidation of this nature.


  27.  In both communities, paramilitary groups regularly attack those they allege are criminals or involved in anti-social behaviour. Such attacks may include:

    (i)  beatings—often with baseball bats, iron bars, clubs or breeze blocks;

    (ii)  shootings—in the legs, knees or arms;

    (iii)  expulsions—where the victim is warned that if they do not leave Northern Ireland within say 24 hours they, or their families, will be murdered or seriously assaulted.

  28.  In reality, the primary objectives of the terrorist groups are:

    (i)  to intimidate and keep control of certain areas;

    (ii)  to protect their own organised crime interests;

    (iii)  to deter public co-operation with the police.

  29.  Often there is little or no evidence that the victims have committed the alleged offences. They have no trial and no appeal. The definition of "anti-social behaviour" can also be interpreted liberally.

  30.  The attached graphs show the scale of the problem.

  31.  Again we must point out that these are the attacks known to police. Others go unreported. There are no reliable figures for those who are forced to leave their homes as a result of such attacks or intimidation.

  32.  Police investigating these types of attacks face serious difficulties in that:

    (i)  the victims often refuse totally to co-operate with police. In one recent incident in Belfast, for example, a young man was beaten by a number of men carrying hammers and iron bars. He sustained two broken hands, a broken nose, broken ankle and severe bruising. He was interviewed by police but refused to make any statement or complaint. In another, a group of men carrying weapons broke into a house and tried to break into a room where a youth who was visiting the house had taken refuge. They could not get in and left after issuing threats. The youth in question has now fled the country. We do not know where he has gone. He has never reported this.

    (ii)  the victims often co-operate with the attackers. Arrangements are sometimes made for the victim to present themselves at a particular time and place to be beaten or shot, on condition that an ambulance will be called immediately. The victims often view this option as being preferable to being excluded or expelled from Northern Ireland;

    (iii)  witnesses simply will not co-operate with the police, making criminal prosecutions almost impossible.


  33.  This is probably a numerically smaller group than the last but is significant.

  34.  In both communities in Northern Ireland the paramilitaries seek to maintain control and stifle dissent. Incidents do occur where local people confront or publicly disagree with the paramilitaries. This can result in intimidation and, in extreme cases, violence.

  35.  The reality is that, more often, the threat of possible attack or expulsion from the area is sufficient to stifle most criticism, although some very forthright and courageous community leaders do speak out very publicly.


  36.  Finally, there is the issue of racial intimidation in Northern Ireland. This is often not thought of as a major problem but this is mainly because of the relatively small number of members of ethnic communities living in Northern Ireland.

  37.  There are significant numbers of methods of racially motivated intimidation of people. Recently, for example, there has been a spate of attacks on members of the Chinese community. Although often directly connected with property crime, for example robbery or burglary, such offences are perceived by the victims as being racially motivated and therefore fall within the ACPO definition of Rate/Hate crime. There are also regular cases of attacks on members of the Travelling community, although few of these seem to be reported to the police.

Attack on Home Attack on PropertyGraffiti OtherPhysical Assault Verbal AbuseWritten Material Total
Black425 11123
Chinese69 176 534
Indian98 27 1137
Other3 5 1321
Traveller13 4
White21 4 815
Total2121 21130 481134


  38.  This paper has been prepared in response to the area that the Committee is currently examining. We have, therefore, sought to illustrate the key elements of this complex problem and put the issue of housing intimidation in context.

  39.  There is no doubt that intimidation in general, and especially those cases where individuals are forced to flee their homes, is a significant problem and one we treat very seriously. It is also a difficult problem to detect and prevent unless there is real support from the wider community in the areas in question.

December 2000

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 19 July 2001