BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Andy Kearney was quick with his hands and didn't back down from anyone.
When he heard that the son of a woman he knew had been beaten up, Kearney went after one of the men who supposedly administered the beating when he saw him in a bar. Kearney was not intimidated by the fact that the man was a well-known senior figure in the Irish Republican Army. In hindsight, perhaps he should have been.
In the early hours of July 19, a group of eight reputed IRA men appeared at the high-rise apartment Kearney shared with his girlfriend and their 2-week-old daughter in the New Lodge section of Belfast. The members of what is known here as a punishment squad sealed off the building with military precision.
Some of the men burst into the apartment, where they found Kearney lying down with his infant daughter on his chest. They ordered his girlfriend to take the baby into another room. Kearney, 33, was marched out into the hallway and shot in the legs.
Before they left, the men ripped the telephone from the wall and immobilized the elevator. In the time it took for his girlfriend to run for help down the stairwell with their baby in her arms, Andy Kearney bled to death, one year to the day after the IRA called a cease-fire it supposedly still observes.
The bullet that destroyed an artery in Andy Kearney's leg also has opened a furious debate over the sincerity of paramilitary groups to honor their promises to end the violence. The killing has embarrassed Sinn Fein leaders, who insist that they cannot be held responsible for the actions of the IRA.
Pro-British Protestant politicians say that unless the IRA stops its punishment shootings and beatings and declares unequivocally that the war is over, its political representatives within Sinn Fein cannot join the Northern Ireland Assembly Cabinet to be formed in September.
The IRA, which wants to end British rule of Northern Ireland, believes that its cease-fire is solid. It will not attack police, soldiers, or so-called economic targets. But the IRA is still in business, as are its Protestant counterparts.
These organizations engage in extortion and other illicit money-raising ventures. And they act as judge, jury, and executioner in kangaroo courts they assert are necessary to keep order because the police are not acceptable alternatives in their neighborhoods.
The IRA beats or shoots people for what it calls "antisocial activity," an elastic term used to describe drug dealers, social misfits, or somebody such as Kearney, who had the misfortune of beating up the wrong guy.
Glyn Roberts, spokesman for Families Against Intimidation and Terror, a Belfast-based lobbying group, said that through the end of last week, the IRA had carried out most of the 30 punishment shootings attributed to Catholic republican groups this year.
Roberts said the two main loyalist paramilitary groups, the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, had performed 17 punishment shootings.
Besides the shootings, Roberts said, republicans have meted out 27 punishment beatings and loyalists have beaten 36 people. Because punishment squads use cement blocks and baseball bats with nails protruding from them, the injuries from punishment beatings are usually worse than so-called kneecappings, in which victims are shot in the backs of their legs.
Despite the political progress in Northern Ireland, rough street justice appears to be increasing. Some people suggest that such vigilantism has become more important to the IRA as a way to maintain morale and to exercise control now that its volunteers have nothing else to do.
In May, Catholic republicans shot a 79-year-old man in North Belfast. He was believed to be the oldest punishment victim of the so-called Troubles. It was unclear whether the shooting was done by the IRA or a small splinter group.
The reason was also unclear. Royal Ulster Constabulary chief Ronnie Flanagan said it was a case of mistaken identity. But neighborhood residents said that the man was a suspected pedophile.
"Shooting a 79-year-old man cannot be justified, whatever the alleged reason," said Roberts, whose group accuses the British and Irish governments of turning a blind eye to the punishment beatings and shootings.
Under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, which created the assembly, any party linked to a paramilitary group can be barred from holding office if that group violates the commitment to nonviolence.
Ulster Unionists who before Kearney's death seemed almost resigned to the fact that Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness would become Cabinet ministers now point to the killing as a reason to oppose them.
Sinn Fein leaders say that they are opposed to punishment squads but are powerless to persuade the IRA to stop them. Sinn Fein leaders repeat that they are not part of the IRA and cannot be held responsible for its actions. But that is an argument they lost last winter, when Sinn Fein was expelled from the peace talks after the IRA allegedly killed two men.
The man Kearney is said to have beaten and is believed responsible for the attack on Kearney is an infamous IRA figure who has survived several assassination attempts by loyalist hit squads. He also was shot by a British soldier but survived.
Some people say the IRA keeps its neighborhoods from being overrun by hoodlums and drug dealers.
Maureen Kearney has a less charitable view of those who killed her son. "If they don't like you," she said, "they dispense with you."
Pub Date: 8/06/98