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Why both DUP and Sinn Fein must stop cosying up to dangerous people

No social investment strategy can ultimately succeed if it has links with paramilitarism in any shape or form, says Alex Kane

Published 21/11/2016

Charter NI boss and UDA commander Dee Stitt
Charter NI boss and UDA commander Dee Stitt

Dee Stitt's comments about "homeland security" were fairly typical of the sort of swaggering stupidity we've come to expect from some paramilitary-linked people on both sides. He couldn't help himself: showing off to supporters in a hall while sneering at the camera.

Stupid and atavistic on so many levels; but particularly stupid for the CEO of an organisation which is in receipt of public funds as part of an "innovative Government programme to tackle deprivation ... which focuses primarily on employment/training support, early-intervention services and educational support with others, incorporating mental health services, social economy support, transport, fuel poverty and community capacity".

The DUP's Emma Little Pengelly says that Dee Stitt is an "internal matter" for Charter NI. She's wrong. It ceased to be an internal matter when his comments became an issue of public perception; in other words, how Charter NI is now viewed.

In his interview with the Guardian, he also said: "There is always inter-community violence. In normal society, there is always going to be a big guy. Working-class housing estates - it's a jungle."

Those are very disturbing comments from the CEO of an organisation which, according to the signage on its entrance is, "Striving to enable, equip and empower our community".

What does he mean by "our community?" How does he want to empower that community? What values and standards is he promoting if he accepts that there's always a "big guy", always "inter-community violence" and always something that needs "defending" by way of "homeland security".

I don't doubt that good work is being done at local level by various community groups. Nor am I suggesting that money is unaccounted for. I'm well aware that socio-economic deprivation remains a key issue, particularly for those communities where the writ of assorted paramilitary and criminal gangs (which are often one and the same thing) still runs.

But I do believe that the general perception - some of it accurate, some of it over-egged and some of it just wrong - of money being directed towards "community groups" with links to former and existing paramilitaries is doing huge damage to what should be an important social and political project. Which is what is happening in the case of Dee Stitt.

That's why Arlene Foster described him as a "distraction". That's why Jeffrey Donaldson argued that he shouldn't remain as CEO. That's why Martin McGuinness raised concerns. That's why the media spotlight is now on both Stitt and the overall administration of the Social Investment Fund. All of which brings us back to a bigger question: why is someone like Stitt - a senior figure in the UDA - the CEO of an organisation like Charter NI?

Some people, particularly loyalists, will ask, why not? They have a point, of course, bearing in mind that senior members of the IRA (and I don't know for certain if they remain members, or not) are involved in the Government here. And it's also the case that quite a few people with links to various paramilitary groups hold positions of authority in bodies and organisations which are funded by the taxpayer. So why is there the attention on Stitt?

Let me raise a second question. Why, after a peace process which began with the first IRA ceasefire in August 1994 (although some would argue that the beginnings can be traced to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement), do we still have so many paramilitaries - former and present members - playing a role? Well, it's the unavoidable consequence of having settled for conflict stalemate rather than conflict resolution.

Paramilitarism - be it dormant or active - will continue to have a cultural and historical hold in a society where nothing has actually been settled. The only consensus we reached - and it's a vitally important one, obviously - is the consensus that we were getting nowhere by violence, mutual political exclusion and a refusal to try and work together.

But because that consensus isn't built upon a common narrative, it means that the big issues - the ones which will always drag us backwards - remain unresolved: issues like legacy, victims, truth, responsibility, paramilitarism and social/community integration.

Previous attempts to jointly tackle socio/economic deprivation ended up with political squabbles about which community deserved the most financial attention at any one time.

Channelling more money into one side, rather than the other, ensured that community spokesmen - a catch-all title if ever there was one - complained that "our people are being left behind".

And if you tell people often enough that they are on the losing side of a political agreement, then it doesn't take long until they are prepared to listen to voices outside the political mainstream.

I'm pretty sure that's why the DUP and Sinn Fein took, to all intents and purposes, what amounted to joint control of the "community problem" back in March 2011; which, in turn, produced the Social Investment Fund strategy.

They needed to tie the remaining vestiges of paramilitary support and influence (and that also includes dissident republicanism) into a broader project in which those communities would begin to see actual and positive benefits.

I also think that's why Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt set up the Unionist Forum in January 2013, bringing in a number of loyalist groups increasingly agitated by the flag protests.

Yet, there's no guarantee that the success of the Social Investment strategy - assuming that it is successful, of course - would lead to the disappearance of paramilitary influence anytime soon.

The UDA and UVF seem entrenched in some areas, with no desire to disband and disappear.

And since there's no evidence of an electoral breakthrough for the parties they're linked to, they remain wedded to the belief that their continuing existence is the only way they can have influence. The mainstream political parties and security forces need to dissuade them from that belief.

Meantime, the Executive and Assembly have their own challenge to face: they need to develop a blueprint for dealing with paramilitaries and paramilitarism.

The one produced a few months ago - and which is still awaiting full funding - doesn't go far enough. It's wordy, woolly, indulgent and clinically weak.

We're long past the stage at which a gentle nudge will do the job. And we're also long past the stage at which paramilitaries should believe that there is still a role for them.

But one problem remains: it's going to be very difficult to remove paramilitary influence while the DUP and Sinn Fein opt for looking after their own separate bases rather than them governing in the collective interest.

Paramilitarism and paramilitary culture survives when the centre is dysfunctional and its direction unclear.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have pampered dangerous people for far too long. They need to stop.

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