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groomed at 15 As soon as I joined the UVF I knew that one day I'd have to leave Ulster

Man groomed by the terror group when he was 15 has to flee because bosses won't let him quit

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PACEMAKER BELFAST ILLUSTRATION PICTURE  IRA
Punishment beating in Belfast

PACEMAKER BELFAST ILLUSTRATION PICTURE IRA Punishment beating in Belfast

PACEMAKER BELFAST ILLUSTRATION PICTURE IRA Punishment beating in Belfast

ARMED with a flick bat and wearing a balaclava, 16-year-old Martin knew what he was about to do was very, very wrong.

Along with three other teenagers, he was under UVF orders to "put out" a foreign national family who had just moved to Belfast.

"The senior (UVF) ones said they were involved in prostitution, but I don't think that was true," he said.

"You weren't allowed to question anything; you did what you were told or else you'd get a dig yourself.

"We went into the house and there was a man there and we just got stuck into him and I remember his wife just screaming and screaming.

"The very next day in school my form teacher told us that someone in our class would not be back because their parents had been attacked and forced out of their home. I just sunk into my seat."

It was one of many attacks and beatings the schoolboy doled out on the orders of his UVF bosses, who he said "groomed" him from the age of 15.

Now in his late 20s, and following multiple attempts to leave the terror gang, he's being forced to flee Northern Ireland for his safety - and his future.

"As soon as I joined I knew that one day I was going to have to leave this country," he told the Sunday World.

"I tried to get out many times, but you always ended up getting that phone call.

"The last meeting I was told to go to wasn't that long ago... they asked me where I'd been, that I had fees and fines to pay.

"I'd already paid someone almost three grand to get out. They told me that wasn't their problem.

"I paid up and then I got another phone call to go to another meeting... it was cancelled at the last minute.

"My mate later told me they were going to give me a beating. I knew then that I needed to leave here, I wasn't going to give them the chance."

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To protect the safety of Martin's family, who still live in Belfast, the Sunday World has changed his name and is not revealing the predominantly loyalist area where he was recruited into the ranks of the UVF as child.

He hopes that by speaking out about his experience will help the many young people being "brainwashed" by paramilitary gangsters in their communities.

"They target children from dysfunctional families, get them down in house drinking and then they'll come in and hit you with it - ask you to join.

"There's other ways too, people who are caught selling drugs, they'll hit them with big, massive fines that they can't pay and when you can't pay, then they make you sign up.

"Anti-social behaviour as well, someone is doing something they'll get fined and then they can't pay so they'll have to sign up," he said.

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Loyalists throw projectiles at police on Lanark Way near the 'Peace Gates' interface on April 19, 2021 in Belfast

Loyalists throw projectiles at police on Lanark Way near the 'Peace Gates' interface on April 19, 2021 in Belfast

Loyalists throw projectiles at police on Lanark Way near the 'Peace Gates' interface on April 19, 2021 in Belfast

"I had a bit of a broken family life. My mum and dad parted when I was dead young, my mum moved abroad when I was 10 and I moved in with my granny and granda.

"My granny passed away when I was 15 and it hit my granda very bad - he was going out on the drink all the time and I lost my head, because he was the one bit of stability I had.

"I started running with the wrong crowd, drinking and playing up. I was brought up in a predominantly Protestant area and I started to make a name for myself by fighting Catholics at nearby interfaces.

"I was fighting for the sake of fighting. It was when I started drinking with my mate's big brothers that things started to turn sinister.

"One of them said to me, I'm sure you know what I do...do you want to join the UVF?

"I was off my head on drink and said, yeah... why not?

"The very next day they came and picked me up. There was no turning back."

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Kid petrol bombs bus on Shankill road

Kid petrol bombs bus on Shankill road

Kid petrol bombs bus on Shankill road

The schoolboy and a friend were driven to a number of locations before finally being brought inside a house where they were officially sworn into the ranks of the UVF.

"They brought us inside and we walked into a room where there was about seven or eight men, all masked, all with guns, standing around the edge of the room.

"There was a boy in the middle with a balaclava on and a union jack on the table.

"He had the oath in front of him and read it out to me, I had to reply to him. I was only 15, I was bricking it. I had the fear of God in me.

"I'd seen shows of strength at a distance during bonfires, but I'd never been standing in a room with armed men. Handguns, a shotgun, assault rifles.

"We'd regularly be told to go put people out of their homes.

"You'd be given balaclavas and weapons, things like flick bats, claw hammers, metal bars.

"We would be made to watch people, follow them and hammer them. There's been times where I have been sitting outside someone's house for hours watching them.

"It wasn't just strangers either, I've been made to hit friends who don't go to band parades, give out punishment beatings to friends because they haven't turned up to meetings or haven't paid their money in time.

One of the most scarring experiences for Martin was the brutal beating of a paedophile.

"We went to his flat and opened the computer...there was loads of child abuse images and we just hammered him. I remember looking down and seeing a bone in his shin sticking out of his skin.

"When we left people on the street cheered. A lot of people may say he deserved it, but I was a kid... I shouldn't have been doing that."

Martin said the guilt of what he was doing began to weigh heavily.

"Coming away from those jobs you felt terrible, absolutely terrible," he said. "Only my best mate knew what I was doing, none of my family did for a long time.

"You don't get paid either; you pay into it. For the UVF anyway, you pay £26 every six months and then on top of that you'll get a phone call every so often saying there's going to be a party, a fundraiser for people in prison to get them tracksuits.

"I'd be given two tickets to sell but what I would usually do is just pay for the tickets and not go down."

For many vulnerable children, being part of the UVF is seen as a badge of honour, said Martin.

"There were plenty who thought this was the best thing that ever happened to them. It's far from it.

"The area I was in, there was a pretty big number of young people. Even after I left the YCV (the UVF's youth wing) and got put into the UVF, I noticed then there was quite a large number of kids getting mixed up in it.

"They put the kids through interrogation training. Basically, you are brought into a room, tied up and beaten for hours upon hours.

"I was tied to a chair and smacked and beaten by three men wearing masks. They'd beat you, then leave you for while and fly back in and give you another hammering."

Martin made multiple attempts to leave the terror unit, but each time his paramilitary bosses made it harder than the last.

"When we turned 18 a couple of us went and asked could we leave and were told no, we hadn't been active enough.

"They said come back when you're 20. So, we did, and we were told, it's a bit late now lads.

"About a year and a half ago I went to see one of them and said I wanted out. He hit me for almost three grand. Turns out he took my money and left the country, or so they claimed.

"About a year ago they came to me and asked where I'd been, I told them I'd paid. I was told that's not their problem, I'm still in it.

"When I heard I was going to get another hiding, I just thought, f*** this. I'm not going down for another hammering. I knew this time it was going to be a lot more serious...like broken bones.

"It was around the same time that the violence was breaking out over the Protocol. Kids were rioting and I was watching the videos and hearing the adults on the sidelines telling them not to run away.

"It made me sick, they get away with murder literally."

Asked of his opinion on the Loyalist Communities Council, Martin calls the organisation "a joke".

"How can they be allowed to speak in government whenever we know what they are doing, we know who they are representing?

"Kids are being recruited into republican gangs too, just look at Londonderry."

He added: "Police are also a problem - they know who the leaders are, but they are scared to go in and arrest them. In my opinion they turn a blind eye to it, as it's easier."

Martin said he managed to gather the strength to leave after receiving help from Wave Trauma Centre and the Tackling Paramilitaries programme. "I've been lucky to have the help of Wave, Alan McBride, Adele Brown from Tackling Paramilitarism. If I hadn't had them I have no idea what I would have done.

"Also, Martin Magill, he has been amazing. I never thought I'd say that about a priest."

He added: "A lot of people who know what has happened with me think I should go to the police.

"There's two things that could potentially happen there, A, I get done for being a member of a paramilitary organisation or B they'll ask me to do intel for them, and I'll end up being worse than I am now.

"Moving away is the best option for me and my future.

"Maybe some time I'll be able to help the kids brainwashed by paramilitaries and show them there is an alternative.

"I don't want them making the same mistakes as me."

p.devlin@sundayworld.com

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