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Cantrell Close: If the political vacuum isn't filled, paramilitaries are here to stay

Dr Aaron Edwards

If the UVF is proven to be behind intimidation and threats in east Belfast, it is important to place what is happening within the group in a broader context.

Attributing the behaviour of the group's east Belfast unit to criminal enterprise alone betrays a more complicated picture of what is happening inside paramilitary loyalism. In my book UVF: Behind the Mask, I look at the individual motivations and group dynamics that gave rise to, sustained, and, finally, ended the UVF's armed campaign.

Although known for its military-style chain of command and tight structure, this mystique obscures more than it reveals.

In my detailed look at UVF units in Belfast, east Antrim and mid-Ulster, I discovered that a considerable amount of autonomy was given to area commanders by the group's 'brigade staff' based on the Shankill.

Unfortunately, the relationship between the Shankill leadership and the UVF's local commanders was never properly reflected in assessments carried out by the Independent Monitoring Commission between 2004 and 2011 or by the PSNI and MI5 in 2015.

Nor was it reflected in the reliance on a top-down approach to the peace process by the British and Irish governments from the mid-1990s.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement effectively fudged the issue of disarming, demobilising and reintegrating those who once swelled paramilitary ranks.

It left the complicated and messy task of moving paramilitaries off the stage to those with influence.

It was people of influence within the UVF, as well as those in the PUP and the wider community, who sought to persuade the group to end its armed campaign, which it did eventually in 2007, before decommissioning in 2009.

These major strategic decisions were arrived at not by a centralised process driven solely by the Shankill-based leadership, but by that leadership reaching an internal consensus with its membership across Northern Ireland.

However, a decade on from the end of the UVF's armed campaign, it seems that this is still not a view accepted by certain individuals in its ranks.

Is this a sign that there has been a breakdown in internal consensus within the UVF on whether the group should continue to move itself off the stage?

Possibly. Yet we must remember that many of the factors which fuelled paramilitary activity are still with us.

The growing political vacuum caused by the absence of representative democracy is one major driver preventing the total abandonment of paramilitary activity.

Another is the re-emergence of right-wing populism that finds a happy hunting ground in deprived neighbourhoods.

But it is the outdated view held by many people outside the UVF's ranks that, left to their own devices, these groups will simply wither on the vine.

The truth is that without a better strategy for dealing with loyalist paramilitary activity, it is destined to remain a problem for many years to come.

Aaron Edwards is the author of UVF: Behind the Mask, published by Merrion Press.

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