The British and Irish governments should open talks with paramilitaries who are ready to ‘leave the stage’, according to a terror watchdog.
Keeping young people from the clutches of paramilitary groups is key to the future of Northern Ireland’s peace process, the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) reported.
It states while progress has been made, paramilitary groups continue to have a coercive controlling influence in some communities.
The report makes recommendations on how to deal with this, but also controversially states dialogue with those involved in both republican and loyalist groups was needed to end the cycle.
Unlike the Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT) report released last week with no agreed strategy on implementation, there is already an agreed action plan in place for tackling paramilitarism.
The IRC report focuses heavily on the disbandment of paramilitary organisations.
“We believe that a dedicated, formal process of engagement with an end goal of disbandment is required. Just as a process of political engagement – ultimately leading to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – was needed to bring the Troubles to an end, a similar process is now necessary to definitively end paramilitarism.
“We outline our thinking on what steps could be involved in a Group Transition process, and urge further consideration of it by the two governments, the Executive and civic society”, the report – by commissioners John McBurney, Tim O'Connor, Monica McWilliams and Mitchell Reiss – states.
Ms McWilliams said the threat of a return to loyalist violence in protest at the Brexit Protocol had not materialised, and she believes there is no prospect of a return to the levels of unrest associated with the conflict.
“There is no going back,” she said.
However, Ms McWilliams added that “prevention was key” and that more needed to be done to stop paramilitaries getting a grip of young people.
A specialist service to deal with people who have been victims of paramilitary-style assaults and shootings is to be set up to deal with a lack of services, specifically in Derry, where the New IRA have been responsible for ongoing attacks on members of the nationalist community.
Former human rights commissioner Ms McWilliams said she believes the threat of new younger militants taking over was no longer an excuse for the existing leaderships of paramilitary groups to remain in place.
“I have visited other conflict societies where there is a big problem of groups fracturing after a peace agreement and we have in some ways succeeded in that not happening to the same extent and that’s a good thing for Northern Ireland.
“But the issue of those groups telling us they won’t be going away because they are worried about the young Turks coming behind them is not a rationale for staying.
“What we are saying is, we would like to see clear blue water between those who are clearly gangsters and criminals and those who are the transformers.
“We have met those individuals who David Ervine said were ‘lusting for peace’ and it is those type of individuals we think should be given an opportunity, if that is the case and we believe it to be, who are genuinely interested in transitioning to the next stage.
“Obviously, the police are disrupting and dismantling but they will have to do it voluntarily, and so there is an opportunity, and if the two governments and the Executive put their backs to this, it will require a brokerage, it will require a process and we believe the time is right.”
Mr O’Connor ,a former Irish government negotiator in the talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement, said: “We need a society free of paramilitarism focused exclusively on democratic and political means, and so we’re taking it that’s already an agreed goal of society, so the question then becomes, how do you get that done?
“We have tried to set out in our analysis the means to how you get that done. A criminal justice policing response is a key part of it but we are saying that other aspects are required as well.
“There is a risk involved in doing this, in engaging and therefore ‘credible-ising’, but we believe that’s the hand we’ve been dealt by society. It is still a clear and present danger and the risks involved are still less than letting it continue to linger.”
Solicitor Mr McBurney said ending recruitment to paramilitary groups was key to ensuring that one leadership was simply not replaced with a different faction.
“That can then be tested, society is not silly or stupid about these things, people will know quite quickly as weeks and months unfold, is that right or wrong, has recruitment to a particular group actually ended, and is the membership book closed.”
Former US special envoy Mr Reiss said this, the fourth report by the IRC, laid out a clearer roadmap for the future.
“What we tried to do is provide a pathway for the people of Northern Ireland to go forward,” he said.
“There has to be a negotiated pathway that has the stamina to be sustained through time and it will be difficult and there will be backsliding, but that’s the way of diplomacy, but we believe it’s worth the risk to end paramilitarism in Northern Ireland”.
While the report has been broadly welcomed, TUV leader Jim Allister was critical of the IRC’s not mentioning paramilitary groups by name.
“It is worth winding the clock back to when the IRC was set up and considering the reasons for its formation. It was formed in 2015 after a Paramilitary Assessment by the Government in the aftermath of the Provisional IRA murder of Kevin McGuigan which stated that the PIRA retrained an ‘Army Council’ which members believed oversaw both the PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy.
“Why is this ignored once again by the IRC? When questioned on the lack of comment on the PIRA within their last report, one of the commissioners is reported as telling the press that ‘are those in power who believe the focus should be elsewhere’.
“Whatever the accuracy of that quote,” he added.