Aaron Edwards: Strategic response needed to eradicate paramilitarism for good
The barbaric murder of 45-year-old Ian Ogle in east Belfast earlier this week points to the challenges that still remain for all those committed to eradicating paramilitarism.
Security sources believe the killing had all the hallmarks of a paramilitary-style attack, with most people attributing blame to the UVF.
The UVF was quick to issue a statement denying responsibility, an unusual step that may well indicate the killing was unsanctioned by the group's senior leadership on the Shankill Road.
"Whoever did it did not do it in the name of loyalism or the UVF," ran the faction's statement. This denial has since been disputed by Mr Ogle's daughter, who said that her family had been terrorised for 18 months at the hands of people purporting to be from the east Belfast UVF.
It appears that the events leading up to Mr Ogle's death are connected to the claim that the east Belfast unit had summoned Mr Ogle and his son for a 'punishment beating by appointment'.
This is not the first time that UVF members have been involved in such attacks and it is unlikely to be the last.
In 2010 the UVF in west Belfast was believed to have executed a former member of the Red Hand Commando (RHC), Bobby Moffett, who had refused to take a beating at the hands of the organisation.
The Moffett murder led to widespread revulsion and damaged the organisation's standing not only in its Shankill heartland but also amongst the ranks of its veteran membership. In their October 2015 assessment of paramilitary groups, the PSNI and MI5 noted how "individual members of the UVF were heavily involved in violence and crime".
By April 2018, however, the UVF was joining with the UDA/UFF and RHC in once again renewing its commitment to the process of conflict transformation, thereby denouncing criminality in all its guises. The UVF has certainly made some progress in reining in its more violent tendencies.
However, it has not gone far enough. While its east Belfast faction issued a conciliatory statement in the wake of Mr Ogle's murder - recognising how actions "of this sort undermine the positive transformation which is taking place with the organisation" - the wider organisation faces a dilemma. Does it continue to support its own policy outlined in April last year or does it simply carry on like it is business as usual?
This is a defining moment for the UVF senior leadership.
Either they move to impose more direct control on their east Belfast faction, a course of action they have traditionally resisted, or they face the prospect of further instability at the hands of local units like this one.
As events in the 1990s attest, the UVF has a chequered history of imposing direct control on its highly-localised units.
Nevertheless, even the UVF senior leadership are aware that continuing paramilitary control falls far short of the objectives they themselves set when they helped shape the 1994 ceasefires.
As I made clear in an article for the Belfast Telegraph a few weeks ago, loyalist paramilitaries remain in existence not only because of the strategic decisions of their leaderships, but also because of a broader failure to tackle the root causes of such militancy
Ironically, there have always been consistent calls from within loyalism for the authorities to deal with what the PSNI calls "mid-level crime gangs".
Regrettably, these progressive voices have been continually marginalised. Ignoring the will of the people is, of course, made possible by the political vacuum that exists in Northern Ireland.
With long waiting lists for basic health care, alleged political corruption, to say nothing of the uncertainty of what Brexit may mean for the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the problem of paramilitarism is often left on the back-burner.
However, it is important that opinion formers and the public keep the pressure on the police and National Crime Agency, the politicians and the political institutions to do all in their power to eradicate paramilitarism.
Berating paramilitary organisations for their failure to transform into community-based organisations is an attractive first response but it is not enough.
More strategic questions must be asked of paramilitary organisations still roaming our streets.
One of the most obvious to ask is not why these groups continue to exist, but why do they do what they do? Answering this more profound question will help us to unlock a more strategic response to tackling paramilitarism and, with any luck, finally eradicate it from our midst.
Aaron Edwards is an academic and author of UVF: Behind the Mask, published by Merrion Press