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Paramilitary structures a device that must be defused

By Liam Clarke

Published 22/10/2015

Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement
Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement

How do paramilitary campaigns end? One way is by winning. Then members get medals and positions in politics, policing, the Army and Civil Service. Others get pensions. That is what happened in the Free State after independence and in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid.

If subversives lose, they can be suppressed, but the way here has generally been to leave them to lick their wounds. That is what happened after previous IRA campaigns ended here - internees were released and life went on until the next one.

The Troubles' outcome lies in between. The IRA and Sinn Fein settled for concessions they had rejected for years, but came out on a reasonably high note.

Prisoners were released, Sinn Fein became the largest nationalist party, the IRA decommissioned voluntarily (but only partially) and did not have all its weapons confiscated.

This inconclusive outcome was a recipe for it sticking around for at least a generation. Politicians must now decide if they can muster the collective resolve to change that.

If they can't agree, the British and Irish governments should set up their own structure, as they once set up the IMC to monitor the situation and work at undermining organised criminal structures. This needs tackling on a cross-border basis. It is a poor sign that the two governments couldn't issue a joint report - they are more effective when they speak together.

As it happens, the Garda report, issued the same day as that of PSNI/MI5, differed mainly on one point. The Garda found there was no IRA Army council, though members still met from time to time and were involved in liaising with the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains. The British report found it existed for peaceful purposes and that members had become involved in "legacy" issues.

There may be a role for an IRA, or loyalist, successor organisation, whose members could admit they were in the IRA for the purposes of historical investigation. That would mean not imposing the charge of membership unless there was evidence that the person was criminally active now.

The reports reminded me of a memo I was given several years ago. Written in 1999, it was from the NIO to the head of Special Branch and military intelligence, outlining intelligence requirements against the IRA, Sinn Fein and the loyalists post-Good Friday Agreement.

The nub of it was that "while Sinn Fein, the UDP and PUP remain clearly linked to terrorist organisations, they will continue to be legitimate targets for intelligence-gathering operations". However, it finds "no requirement" for spying on legitimate political activities and "no requirement for intelligence on the activities of" Stormont politicians. We can take that with a pinch of salt. I also got transcripts of bugged conversations on Martin McGuinness' home phone, none of which mentioned anything subversive. One was even from Secretary of State Mo Mowlam.

In 2005 it emerged that Denis Donaldson, who worked for Sinn Fein in Stormont, was a British agent reporting on republicans while also part of a republican spy ring. Both sides clearly believed the IRA still had secrets to hide.

In 2015 the view hasn't changed. The British report lists sources of intelligence used by MI5 and PSNI. They included tailing people, "eavesdropping in someone's home or other premises", interception of communications (like telephone tapping) and "covert human intelligence sources" (agents or informants to you or me). It notes the IRA still tries to identify these agents. This is the full panoply of intelligence methods used in the Troubles. The fact there is still clearance to not only use them, but publicly admit it, is significant. It shows fear of a continuing - if greatly diminished - threat. Residual paramilitary structures are a time bomb that needs to be defused by governments, with full community support. Politics should continue as normal while that happens.

Belfast Telegraph

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