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Long road ahead to end paramilitarism

The report on the Disbandment of Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland, published last week, is a thought-provoking contribution to the debate about terrorist organisations leaving the stage here

By Graham Spencer

Published 13/06/2016

A paramilitary mural on the Newtownards Road in Belfast
A paramilitary mural on the Newtownards Road in Belfast

According to its authors, the aim of the recently published report on the Disbandment of Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland is to "create conditions in which groups would transform, wither away, completely change and lose their significance". Though ambitious, that ethos has led to a report which is expansive, considered and relevant.

One of the more striking, and frankly refreshing, ways it has achieved this is by largely avoiding comment on the actions of specific groups and focusing instead on cultural factors which influence the continuing existence of those groups.

A notable emphasis in the report is on the need to develop a "culture of lawfulness", separate paramilitary activity from criminal activity and recognise the difference between group dynamics and individual responsibility.

This separation draws from the fact that criminality tends to be carried out by a small number who use the cover of paramilitary affiliation, but act without organisational consent. Hundreds of individuals have been expelled from paramilitary groups because of this, but the problem remains.

In making this distinction, there is an attempt to isolate the minority of criminals from their paramilitary cover and act against them directly. One might argue that, if all paramilitary organisations were ended, then this would be the matter solved.

But who would believe this - even if it were said to have happened? Certainly, actions carried out by members of the IRA last year ended the illusion they no longer exist.

In making the case for changing the environment in which paramilitary groups operate, the report outlines a series of recommendations in relation to promoting respect for the law, removing barriers that prevent former combatants from fully reintegrating into society, tackling criminality and addressing "systemic issues", such as the educational deficit that continues to plague communities and dealing with the past.

Collectively, the recommendations are about building relations and improving co-operation in order to address the circumstances within which paramilitary groups exist.

They also provide a series of steps designed to shrink the ground which paramilitaries occupy and inevitably draw from.

The report is, therefore, an analysis of how the conditions which support a small, but significant minority who wreak intimidation and fear can be transformed in ways which expose and exclude that minority.

For the authors, the continued existence of paramilitarism is a symptom of conflict as well as a matter of individual choice, and only by improving co-operation between leaders, police, politicians and key agencies can it be managed away.

But, paradoxically, removing paramilitarism from the stage will require the involvement of leaders to oversee this shift and the presence of leaders means the continued presence of the organisations they represent.

Because of this, one must see the phasing out of paramilitary groups in the long term, not the short term. But there are other difficulties to be mindful of here, too.

Dissident republican and loyalist groups have not been able to gain support for the political road and this makes change for them harder because they lack a convincing alternative to put in place.

In the absence of that alternative, such groups have found it very difficult to demonstrate any influence over social and political decision-making and this powerlessness is one reason why paramilitary structures remain in place.

In the absence of concerted engagement to draw leaders further into debates and involvement in initiatives about citizenship, education, confidence-building and communal development, the wider perception is reinforced that the communities those leaders come from are being ignored, or seen as incidental to the peace.

The need for constant dialogue and engagement on this is not about indulging leaders, but accountability. People listen to others who listen to them and tend to find it harder to undermine what they feel part of.

Difficult though it may be for those who believe that paramilitary groups should be ended now, the reality is that any move in that direction would be doomed to fail. Rather it would ensure their longevity.

If paramilitary groups were to disband tomorrow, it is obvious that others would seek to step into the void created, with worse consequences for all, as individuals vie for power, reputation and control. Old scores will be settled and violence would be likely to significantly increase.

Because nobody knows how to close a paramilitary organisation down, incremental transformation, therefore, remains the more sensible approach. But this has to be supported by steps and measures where obstructions to change are moved out of the way so as to make resistance to that change much harder to maintain.

Other things make transition difficult, too. The report notes how action against criminality is being undermined by perceived inaction by the police when it is reported, and how concerns about being seen as an informant continue to dog communities who have to live with the consequences of that criminality.

Even though good work is ongoing and there are strong, positive links between some group leaders and the police, it is apparent that building closer relations and co-operation between the two is vital if a respect for lawfulness is to be further embedded in those communities where paramilitaries live.

Though a number of loyalists will latch on to the fact that the report does not really acknowledge the continuing presence and influence of an IRA leadership, they will also see the fairness of the recommendations and take some stock from its listing of areas which continue to inhibit ex-combatants from reintegrating in society.

They will see the value in dealing with the obstacles that ex-combatants face with regards to training, education, fostering a child, or travelling abroad. This is not rewarding ex-combatants, but taking substance out of the claim that such individuals are being denied the opportunity to play a full and constructive role in everyday life.

Importantly, the report is clear in its encouragement that funds which draw down from the Fresh Start Agreement should be "creative and ambitious in scope".

This will require politicians and associated groups to be creative and ambitious in their outlook, too. It will mean a greater receptiveness to forms of expression and communication which are reflective more than offensive.

It will mean allowing individuals and groups to examine and celebrate their culture from the perspectives of curiosity, rather than certainty, and where questions rather than answers start to inform attitudes and actions.

It will also mean educating young people to see that they can better represent their communities by becoming doctors, social workers, teachers, or artists, than they can by relying on symbols and traditions to show who they are.

Many leaders have the intelligence and the confidence to push for change and a number have done so tirelessly. Most also realise that using paramilitary cover for individual gain is destructive to the very communities they purport to represent and defend.

The foundations for a meaningful shift away from paramilitary influence will, however, most likely take place quietly, incrementally and even invisibly. Admittedly, an invisible path of transformation could bring with it the assertion that nothing has changed, but only the distance of time will come to diffuse such criticism and show it to be groundless.

Some 14 recommendations in the report to support transition may upset victims who want to see immediate action taken against those responsible for their suffering, but it is important to see the report as laying out a course of action for the long term.

For victims, one must hope that the legacy mechanisms of the Stormont House Agreement, if delivered, will provide the answers sought.

Transition is necessarily an ambiguous and often unpredictable process. It will require addressing the various forms of influence that shape attitudes at individual, group, communal and social levels and it will require holding those to account who are preventing transition from happening.

One would hope on this basis that the report will be given the very close and serious attention it deserves. Without funding, acting on and testing its recommendations, violent groups of the past will continue to exist and the process of building a post-conflict society in Northern Ireland will be stifled. Of that there should be no doubt.

Belfast Telegraph

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