Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Why absence of an Executive is a major reason for our failure to get to grips with paramilitarism

But uncertainty posed by Brexit only adds fuel to the fire of dissident and loyalist violence, says Alban Maginness

IRA writing appears alongside a Saoradh mural in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast on September 15th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
IRA writing appears alongside a Saoradh mural in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast on September 15th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

Steve Aiken, the new leader of the UUP, had an inauspicious start to his leadership when he was forced to make an embarrassing U-turn on his initial decision to stand an Ulster Unionist candidate in North Belfast.

What should have been a straightforward issue for the new, businesslike leader turned sour as the issue became bogged down in the treacherous quicksands of North Belfast.

There were a number of reasons for his volte face - not least the threat of loyalist paramilitary intimidation of party personnel in that constituency.

Steve Aiken, rightly, highlighted this sinister element. Clearly, the shadow of paramilitarism still haunts aspirant democratic politics.

Ironically, around the time of Steve Aiken's difficulties the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) published its second report about bringing an end to paramilitary activity.

The IRC was set up in the aftermath of the Fresh Start Agreement of November 2015 with a mandate to bring, "paramilitarism to an end, once and for all".

This timely but bleak report reminds us that paramilitarism remains a stark reality in Northern Ireland.

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The view of the principal authors, Professor Monica McWilliams (former leader of the Women's Coalition) and solicitor John McBurney, is that there are no grounds for complacency, in that continuing paramilitarism is a matter of "profound concern".

The report records several disturbing events, including murder and attempted murder by paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian divide.

While there has been a downward trend in the frequency of paramilitary attacks since 2010, there has been a disturbing increase in the number of deaths and attacks between 2018 and 2019. The authors conclude that the situation is both "serious and concerning".

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken
Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken

The current threat from dissident republicans is worryingly assessed by the PSNI as being "severe".

A catalogue of serious incidents carried out by them includes the tragic murder in Derry of journalist and writer Lyra McKee in April.

While that appalling killing attracted universal condemnation, it did not halt that brand of poisonous republican activity in Derry or elsewhere.

Loyalist paramilitaries also continued to carry out serious crimes, including the murder of Ian Ogle, who died in a vicious attack by UVF members near his home in east Belfast in January.

Like Lyra McKee's killing in Derry, Ian Ogle's murder attracted widespread condemnation, but, nonetheless, loyalist paramilitary activity recommenced.

The IRC rightly stated, that the continuance of paramilitarism 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement is unacceptable.

And, with regard to the criminal justice response to paramilitarism, the IRC has urged, in addition to effective police action, the establishment of an assets recovery agency that focuses solely on the civil recovery of the proceeds of crime.

Some years ago there was an Assets Recovery Agency that was aimed at the recovery of the ill-gotten gains of paramilitaries.

This operated effectively under the robust leadership of ex-senior PSNI officer Alan McQuillan.

It was in its day a highly successful organisation that tackled paramilitary crime effectively.

Despite its evident success this agency was closed down and its functions taken over by the National Crime Agency, which, despite assurances, seems to have done very little to deal with paramilitaries enriching themselves.

This recommendation has much to commend itself and the IRC are right to emphasise its need. It is also right for us to ask why, in the first place, the Government stood down the ARA, which was a very effective tool in the fight against paramilitary crime.

In the meantime the IRC suggests that the NCA robustly uses its civil recovery power against the paramilitaries.

Let's hope that they waken up and become proactive against the paramilitary organisations.

While the IRC, in a wide-ranging and well-argued report, lay out some very interesting and good ideas, they have referred to two contextual factors that they believe are critical to dealing with the problem of paramilitarism.

First, they forthrightly admit that the challenge of bringing paramilitarism to an end is made immeasurably more difficult by the absence of political decision-making at Stormont. That is because there is a major input required by those with a democratic mandate to address the issue of paramilitarism.

The absence of the Executive and the Assembly is, therefore, a major obstacle in achieving that goal.

Second, the other contextual factor is the issue of Brexit, which allied with the absence of the Assembly, creates further uncertainty that, in their opinion, "adds fuel to the fire of continued paramilitarism".

They contend that the uncertainty surrounding Brexit continues to have a serious impact.

Issues around the border are being used by some as a pretext and a continuation of paramilitary structures.

This pretext and justification will remain a stubborn reality as long as Brexit uncertainty persists.

We have been well-warned and should be very worried.

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