Republican News · Thursday 04 May 2000

[An Phoblacht]

A kind of casual lynching


Lynching, summary execution by hanging, most prevalent against the black population in the Southern states of American in the nineteenth century, probably took it's name from Captain William Lynch. In his study ``All God's Children'', New York Times journalist Fox Butterfield describes Lynch as a backcountry settler of Scots Irish decent who lived in Virginia and South Carolina in the 1760s.

The killing of Robert Hamill was ``a kind of casual lynching''. Casual in the manner of the loyalist mob, so confident in escaping conviction that they carried out the fatal attack in full view of an armed RUC patrol, made no attempt to hide their identities or make good their escape. Casual in the attitude of the RUC, who empathised more with the mob than their victims, who had no pity for the dying and no interest in preventing the crime or punishing the criminals. And casual in the compliance of the state and its justice system.
Butterfield argues that immigrants to America from Ulster brought with them a tradition of violence, presumably from suppressing Irish natives at home. Lynch mob members argued that lynching was needed from time to time, says Butterfield, ``to impress the negro with his position and make him more careful... At bottom, lynching was another tool to ensure white control, and it grew in the 1890s as blacks increasingly refused to accept their subordinate, oppressed status.''

In the North of Ireland in the early hours of 27 April 1997, another kind of mob kicked Portadown Catholic Robert Hamill to death. The 25-year-old father of three was identified as a target by the loyalist gang waiting at the cross roads because he had just left St Patrick's Hall, a Catholic social club in Portadown, and was walking with his three companions towards a Catholic housing estate.

Struck from behind, Robert fell immediately to the ground, where the mob repeatedly kicked and stamped upon his head. One of the assailants shouted: ``Die, you fenian bastard, die.'' Robert's friend, Gregory Girvan, was also severely beaten but survived. Robert died in hospital 12 days later on 8 May. He never regained consciousness. London Guardian journalist and activist Jeremy Hardy later referred to Robert's murder as a ``kind of casual lynching''.

d it was casual, if only in the sense that any `taig' would do. In the early hours of a Sunday morning, just when the pubs and clubs were closing and people were making their way home after a Saturday night out, the loyalist gang had gathered at a very particular spot for a very specific purpose.

Even the local RUC, anticipating loyalist trouble, had deployed an armed mobile patrol to monitor the junction at Market Street - a junction renowned as dangerous for Catholics returning home to Obins Street and Garvaghy Road.

d casual could certainly describe the attitude of the RUC. Four officers armed with pistols and machine guns sat in an armoured Land Rover just a few yards away and watched as the attack took place. They made no attempt to intervene. They did not get out. They did not radio for reinforcements. They did not fire a warning shot.

When one of Robert's companions, a female relative, Siobhan Girvan, banged on the side door of the Land Rover pleading for help, she was ignored. Her sister, Joanne Girvan, was also screaming for help as she watched her husband, Gregory, being kicked into unconsciousness. The RUC remained unmoved. In an attempt to protect Robert from further blows, Siobhan threw herself over his body. The action was a measure of her desperation.

``I knew Robert was hurt because he was a big fella but he just lay down and never put his hands up to protect himself. He just lay there and they were just kicking and kicking,'' said Joanne.

In the immediate aftermath, the RUC patrol made no attempt to administer first aid to either injured victim. The loyalist mob hung around but the RUC made no arrests. No crime scene was declared. A witness saw one loyalist sitting with the RUC in the Land Rover after the attack; they appeared to be sharing a joke.

d Robert's death soon became a laughing matter amongst loyalists generally in Portadown. In August of the same year, during an Orange Order march past the nationalist Garvaghy Road to Drumcree church, loyalists mimed kicking and stomping, taunting nationalist residents with Robert's killing.

This month marks the anniversary of Robert Hamill's death and three years after the killing, the mockery continues. But now it is accompanied by taunts about the murder of another local Catholic, Lurgan defence lawyer Rosemary Nelson. At the time of her death in March 1999, Rosemary was a key person in the campaign for justice for Robert Hamill.

She was killed as she was arranging to meet Imran Khan, the solicitor who represented the family of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager killed in a racist attack by white youths in London in 1993. Following years of campaigning, a public inquiry into Stephen's killing was held in 1998.

The parallels between the two killings are striking. Striking, not only in the nature of Stephen's and Robert's deaths but also in the subsequent response of the authorities. Duwayne Brooks, a friend who was with Stephen at the time of the attack, described the attitude of the London Metropolitan police:

``None of the uniformed officers were doing anything for Steve. They should have known what to do. They should have done something for Steve. They just stood there doing nothing.''

``WPC Bethel said, `How did it start? Did they chase you for nothing?' I said one of them shouted, `what, what nigger?' She asked me if I had any weapons on me. She was treating me like she was suspicious of me, not like she wanted to help.''

``My son was stabbed and left to bleed to death on the night of 22 April 1993 while police officers looked on,'' said Doreen Lawrence, Stephen's mother. Speaking of the Metropolitan Police, Doreen said: ``They treated the affair as a gang war and from that moment on acted in a manner that can only be described as white masters during slavery.''

The RUC also attempted to distort the circumstances in which Robert Hamill died. ``Two youths have been detained in hospital with head injuries following a clash between rival factions in Portadown... bottles were thrown during the hostilities and police themselves came under attack by a section of the crowd,'' lied the first RUC press statement.

Three days later the RUC were claiming that ``a police Land Rover crew in Portadown town centre were alerted to a disturbance and immediately intervened to gain order and prevent assaults''. The statement went on to claim that the RUC had only withdrawn when they ``became themselves the subject of attack''.

It was eleven days and on the eve of Robert's death before the RUC set the record straight. ``Two couples who had left a social event in St Patrick's Hall were set upon by a large crowd. The two men in the group of four were knocked to the ground and viciously beaten.''

The RUC often play a decisive role in the manipulation of the media's response to a particular incident. By regularly distorting the detail of a particular killing, RUC spin doctors manipulate the wider perception of the conflict in the North to suit a pro British agenda - a model in which two warring tribes engage in reciprocal ``tit for tat'' violence contained only by the ``neutral'' forces of the crown.

Of course, the facts don't fit the fiction. Over the last 30 years, Catholics have been more than twice as likely to be killed than Protestants. The largest single category of deaths is that of Catholic civilians. Over a hundred Protestant civilians have been killed by loyalists, many in the mistaken belief the victim was a Catholic.

Sectarian attacks against Catholics are a weekly, in times of heightened political tension, a daily occurrence in the Six Counties. Tens of thousands of Catholics have survived sectarian attacks. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics have endured sectarian abuse and sectarian discrimination. In exposed nationalist areas such as North Belfast and within Portadown, nationalist communities live under constant loyalist siege.

Although individual Catholics can be sectarian in their attitude, the experience of sectarianism within the Six-County statelet has been far from reciprocal. Sectarian violence is a weapon used almost exclusively by loyalists against nationalists.

Sectarian discrimination ensures unionist privilege. A sectarian state maintains British domination. No wonder state forces like the RUC often play a pivotal role in obscuring the truth by creating a perception of sectarianism as a kind of Capulet and Montague ``plague on both your houses'' phenomenon.

After Robert Hamill's death, six men were charged with his murder. At their own request, they were placed in the LVF wing of Long Kesh jail. The LVF acclaimed them as the Portadown Six and produced leaflets in their support. The leaflet confirmed the men's involvement but describes their actions as honourable. ``You have been criminalised for defending yourselves against an unprovoked attack.''

Within months of their arrest charges against five, Allister Hanvey, Wayne Lunt, Dean Forbes, Stacey Bridgett and Rory Robinson, were dropped. The sixth, Marc Hobson, went to trial but was acquitted. The Director of Public Prosecutions decided to take no action against the RUC patrol at the scene during the murder.

Like the family of Stephen Lawrence, the Hamills are now faced with the desperate option of taking out private prosecutions against Robert's killers. Their campaign for justice gained further momentum last month with the news that the Dublin government will be adding its voice to calls urging the British government to establish an independent public inquiry into the death.

The killing of Robert Hamill was ``a kind of casual lynching''. Casual in the manner of the loyalist mob, so confident in escaping conviction that they carried out the fatal attack in full view of an armed RUC patrol, made no attempt to hide their identities or make good their escape.

Casual in the attitude of the RUC, who empathised more with the mob than their victims, who had no pity for the injured, dying and the distressed and no interest in either preventing the crime or punishing the criminals. And casual in the compliance of the state and its justice system.

Lynching implies more than the act of hanging someone from a tree, or as in the case of Robert Hamill, kicking a person to death, or indeed as in the case of the Quinns, who were burnt alive. It requires a wider complacency. In the context of the Six Counties, it requires specific myths.

Unlike sectarianism, racism implies a power relation, of white domination and black oppression. By continually peddling the myth that sectarianism is reciprocal, tit for tat gang warfare, the truth about the oppression of Irish Catholics in the north and the power relationships which ensure that oppression, is obscured.

In 1998, after the sectarian killings of the Quinn children in Ballymoney, BBC television reporter Dennis Murray described the killings as ``racist''. This well seasoned journalist, who I had watched on TV reporting hundreds of sectarian attacks and killings over many years, broke with the usual delivery and was visibly struck with grief and horror at the Quinns' brutal deaths.

For a moment, Murray understood what sectarianism means within the northern nationalist community; for a moment we were all speaking the same language.

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