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Paramilitaries - they won't go away on their own, you know

The five Executive parties alone are powerless to rid Northern Ireland of the scourge of paramilitaries. Only an agreed British-Irish strategy will finally see them leave the stage, writes Graham Spencer

Published 27/10/2015

Graham Spencer argues that politicians and civil society must work together to rid Northern Ireland of paramilitarism
Graham Spencer argues that politicians and civil society must work together to rid Northern Ireland of paramilitarism

The report Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland, commissioned by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers to examine the relationship between paramilitarism and politics in Northern Ireland, emphasised continuing influence from all those groups which operated throughout the Troubles.

According to the report, these groups "remain in existence", continue to "have strong leadership structures and sub-groups across Northern Ireland" and still "organise themselves along militaristic lines". Importantly, too, "members of all groups have carried out murders since the 1998 Belfast Agreement".

Notably, the crisis at Stormont that led to the report being commissioned to begin with has brought into the light the continuing presence of paramilitary activity in the political landscape of Northern Ireland. And, so, the extent to which politics has embraced exclusively peaceful and non-violent representation remains disputable.

Sinn Fein, which persists with the argument that the Provisional IRA no longer exists, finds itself at odds with the report, which notes how "the structures of PIRA remain in existence" - if in "a much reduced form".

Moreover, this "reduction" does not include the IRA's army council, "some departments" and "some regional command structures", which exert control and ensure authority over strategic direction.

Although the report acknowledges the political development of the IRA alongside Sinn Fein, it nevertheless flatly contradicts the assertion that the IRA no longer exists, as the claim that the army council "oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein" aptly shows.

Although the UDA, UFF, UVF and Red Hand Commando have little to smile about in the report either, their criminality is seen alongside efforts to build non-violent community initiatives which make a return to conflict less, rather than more, likely.

And, unlike the IRA, the loyalist groups have not professed to have left the stage and so cannot face the accusation of not being in existence while continuing to be in existence at the same time.

What the report exposes is a problem of legitimacy in the governance of Northern Ireland and the need for a fundamental shift towards a system of political representation consistent with the exclusively peaceful and non-violent expectations of the Good Friday Agreement.

On the basis of the report, one would have to conclude, however nuanced, that there is a partner in government effectively under the auspices of a paramilitary organisation and that until there is an honest and open debate about the presence of paramilitary influence in Northern Ireland more widely, its institutions will just lurch from one crisis to the next.

The emerging picture is not only about a crisis in political confidence, but in the processes and practices of democratic government itself.

Perhaps what the report highlights most of all is the need for an agreed British-Irish strategy to end the persistent and pernicious influence of paramilitary structures in Northern Ireland more generally.

The report, whether it intended to or not, has in effect created a collective picture of paramilitarism which demands a collective approach to help dismantle all the remnants of its influence.

The IMC, which previously monitored the existence of and changes in paramilitary machinery, should be brought back in some form to provide official and credible long-term assessment of the controlled dilution and disappearance of paramilitary structures.

A second body should, at the same time, be created to work with leadership representatives of all paramilitary organisations to oversee incremental, but purposeful, steps to close paramilitary groups down.

So, while the first body works with a variety of sources to provide deep assessment and examination of the paramilitary landscape, the second works with key individuals and groups to remove them from that landscape.

Alongside this a third emphasis should be placed on collaborative work across and between the groups, chaired by representatives of official and civil organisations, along with group representatives, to ensure better communication and co-operation in supporting moves to dismantle all paramilitary groups and structures.

The threat of dissident action will require a further approach consisting of both collaborative and intelligence-led work in order to limit violence, while seeking to build communication and create space for alternative political representations based on non-violence.

The presence of each group is very much interconnected to the presence of the other and so a comprehensive process based on collective and reciprocal moves towards final dissolution is very much required.

The financial cost of this would not be insignificant, but considered in the context of a future Northern Ireland which is at peace with itself, this would be a price worth paying.

For sure, just asking paramilitary groups to go away and threatening them with action if they do not will merely intensify animosity amongst members and ensure their presence and influence is even more strongly felt.

As it stands, one cannot help but also read the report against the recommendations of the Stormont House Agreement and reach a depressing conclusion from one simple question: what good is a legacy process when the structures of conflict remain in place?

To be sure, the ending of paramilitary structures and influence is a long-term process. This end will require the building of new relationships, myriad new forms of communal inter-dependence and the involvement of civic institutions working to support the development of trust and confidence where possible.

And all of this needs to be led by the British and Irish governments, because the parties cannot do it themselves.

The Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland report is surely evidence enough - if it was needed - that paramilitarism across all organisations involved in violence during the Troubles continues to influence the social and political landscape some 21 years after the ceasefires.

In all likelihood, without a joint-governmental and cross-community approach, it will still be there in another 21 years, along with the same predictable commentary and rhetoric by the political parties who will seek to capitalise on the uncertainties about whether paramilitary structures exist or not.

The Good Friday Agreement and St Andrews Agreement may have laid the foundations for a more normal society, but to complete this journey there is now a very real and immediate need for inter-governmental and all-party engagement to help end the paramilitary presence.

Dr Graham Spencer is reader in political conflict at the University of Portsmouth and author of The State Of Loyalism In Northern Ireland (Palgrave Macmillan)

Belfast Telegraph

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