Paramilitarism remains “a clear and present danger” in Northern Ireland, a new report has found.
On Tuesday afternoon the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) issued its third annual update on progress towards ending paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.
Several recommendations were made including renewed calls for funding and a focus on a twin-track approach tackling the issue from both a policing and a socio-economic perspective.
This follows the Fresh Start Agreement of 2015, in which the British and Irish governments alongside the Northern Ireland Executive pledged to put a stop to paramilitaries once and for all.
The IRC monitors progress and makes suggestions on what more can be done, but differs from the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) which gives detailed security assessments.
The four IRC commissioners - John McBurney and Monica McWilliams (nominated by the Executive) Tim O’Connor (nominated by the Irish Government) and Mitchell Reiss (nominated by the UK Government) - expressed regret that while progress had been made, paramilitaries remained a threat in 2020.
“We regard the continuation of paramilitary activity as unacceptable,” the commissioners said in a statement.
“It is the express will of the people of Northern Ireland articulated in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that violence has no place in the politics of Northern Ireland and that political viewpoints should be pursued through exclusively democratic and peaceful means.”
They added that the continuation of paramilitarism 22 years after the Good Friday Agreement, was against the will of the population and “without justification”.
The commissioners added that hope remained with the restoration of the Executive and a functioning legislative Assembly to “re-set” the original goal of stamping out paramilitaries.
In particular, the commissioners welcomed a new phase of the programme approved by the Executive during the summer months which involved a three year extension.
They noted this will require extra funding from Westminster and the Executive, and called on both to make sure this is forthcoming.
A renewed call for a twin-track approach was made, focusing on both the policing and criminal justice responses alongside measures to tackle socio-economic issues.
These include educational under-attainment, long-term unemployment, poverty and drugs.
The commissioners added they were “encouraged” this was a shared goal of the Stormont Executive following approval of the latest programme to tackle paramilitarism,
The report added that too many communities and families in Northern Ireland remain under the “coercive control” of paramilitary groups.
“That is simply unacceptable and the Commissioners welcome the progress to enhance legislative powers in tackling this problem.”
Progress was also noted in helping to reduce the vulnerability of young people to paramilitary influence through “creative and effective work” with at-risk young people.
Multi-agency work to help young people under threat was also welcomed.
Covid-19 restrictions, it was suggested, provided new opportunities to end paramilitarism.
The report argues that targeted investment, being provided by both the UK Government and the Executive, through plans like the Shared Prosperity Fund, should include areas hit hardest by paramilitary activity.
Another repeated recommendation, was for the Executive to set up a dedicated Northern Ireland agency for the civil recovery of the proceeds of crime.
On legacy issues, the report said that how the past is remembered is key to building a more inclusive society.
This applies to current day activities like funerals, marking anniversaries, erecting murals, flags, memorials and plinths.
Repeating another call from their 2019 report, the IRC again called for a transition process for paramilitary groups.
The Commissioners reiterate their call from their 2019 Report for consideration to be given to a transition process for paramilitary groups.
Justice Minister Naomi Long welcomed the report and praised recent progress.
“The Action Plan to Tackle Paramilitary Activity, Criminality, and Organised Crime is a cross-Executive initiative, not a justice issue alone, and I want to reflect carefully on the recommendations made by the Commissioners with my Executive colleagues,” she said.
“A significant amount of work is being delivered under the cross-Executive Action Plan, and the Programme has benefited greatly from close working between Executive Departments, statutory bodies and community and voluntary organisations. This collaborative effort, drawing on the strengths of all involved, is making a real difference in communities.”
She said notable achievements included extensive youth outreach initiatives, wrap around educational support for young people and a community transformation programme for women.
In addition, she welcomed Probation Board-led work with vulnerable young men, efforts to speed up the justice process and a programme to support communities to transition and the work of the Paramilitary Crime Taskforce.
“However, whilst good progress is being made, lessons learned so far only serve to underline how the enduring and pervasive nature of paramilitarism requires a long term, collaborative approach if we are to effectively resolve all of the issues,” she said.
“We can show, and have demonstrated, the value this critical work brings and I look forward to working with colleagues across all parties to continue the work of this vitally important programme, with the aim of achieving the ultimate goal of safer communities, resilient to paramilitarism, criminality and coercive control.”