Belfast Telegraph

Report raises as many questions as it answers about paramilitarism

By Malachi O'Doherty

A review of the state of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland has turned into a much broader analysis of social ills.

The report of the Fresh Start Panel on disbandment of paramilitary groups might have been expected by many to read like a security assessment, something that would tell us who the heavies are out there and what can be done about them.

It is coy on the detail there but it is radical and assertive in a formula for social and cultural change.

The presumption at the heart of it is that the Executive can do much to encourage the winding down of paramilitary groups.

This ranges from empowering women in community leadership to improving educational opportunities for disaffected young men.

It commends efforts to address the fear that the police are ineffective. So we should have more restorative justice schemes and we should have a cultural change which allows people to report crime without being branded as ‘touts’.

We should also have a process on the past.

The authors understand the scale of paramilitary crime and they are clearly on the side of law and order. Some of what they say is shocking, such as that 77% of the victims of dissident republicans are Catholics from their own communities.

Or that in one year a thousand people were driven from their homes.

Most of us probably sail through life oblivious to that being the scale of the grief inflicted on our communities by armed bullies.

Clearly one of the attractions of paramilitary activity is power.

And we hear again the qualifier that some violence, perpetrated by people who are known leaders of paramilitary groups, may be acting on their own or on ‘local’ initiative.

What that means is that whereas you may be up against some thug who is in the IRA or UVF, who says he is acting on behalf of the IRA or UVF, he may not have the sanction that enables the panel to say that his threats against you come from those organisations.

And this must feel very unsatisfactory in communities where what the ‘dogs on the street’ knows passes for secure knowledge.

We seem to be still stuck with the problem of not being able to blame a paramilitary organisation for anything it doesn’t own up to as sanctioned.

The panel spoke to paramilitary leaders and heard their complaints and their excuses and took them seriously.

Or worse, they are constrained by diplomacy from saying anything blunt that would create another political crisis.

‘Some members and former members of paramilitary groups on ceasefire continue to engage in violent activity to intimidate and exercise control in communities where they operate. In some cases this activity is directed by local leadership but it can also be conducted without sanction.’

Well, if they know that, why can’t they say who they are talking about?

Given that the report was commissioned primarily because of fears about the Provisional IRA participation in murder, it is surprising that there is virtually nothing said plainly about that organisation in it.

There are even paradoxes in the language. For instance: ‘Former members of the Provisional IRA have been directed to become involved in political activity. ‘

If they are ‘former members’ then surely the IRA has no power to direct them to do anything.

Yet there is some gumption in this report too, a clear statement that the objective must be to treat paramilitaries as organised crime groups. We have to do that ‘legally, socially and politically’, a statement that implies that we still accord them a status their criminality should disqualify them for.

An example is how even the police will negotiate with known crime bosses - let’s get used to the language - to help manage parades and disputes.

If the panel gets its way there will also be more reports in the coming years to mark our progress from talking about paramilitaries to talking about organised crime; from moaning about the police and anti social behaviour to reporting crime and properly educating the young into citizenship.

Belfast Telegraph


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