Belfast Telegraph

Doug Beattie: Why these pictures prove republicans are well-armed, well-trained and still pose a threat to hard-won peace

Paramilitary 'shows of strength' demonstrate that, far from being dormant, terrorists' internal structures are intact and active, writes Doug Beattie MC

The INLA stage ‘show of strength’ in memory of Martin McElkerney
The INLA stage ‘show of strength’ in memory of Martin McElkerney
Shots are fired in tribute to IRA man Peter ‘Pepe’ Rooney

By Doug Beattie

The image of masked men in paramilitary-style uniforms firing a volley of shots over the coffin of a terrorist, or at a staged event before or after a funeral, is something we in Northern Ireland thought we had left behind.

Yet, here we have today, within the space of two weeks, two republican commemorations where a volley of shots has been fired.

Of course, many will wave it away as nothing more than bravado. And, indeed, we even got the ludicrous title of "independent veteran republicans" to mask what are extremely worrying and sinister actions.

On Monday in Belfast we saw men dressed in paramilitary uniforms from the INLA firing shots into the air to honour INLA leader - and child-killer - Martin McElkerney.

No more than two weeks ago we saw a similar display when Provisional IRA members fired shots before the funeral of veteran republican Peter Rooney, a funeral attended by senior Sinn Fein members including Bobby Storey, Gerry Kelly and Sean Murray.

These are not spontaneous events.

They are organised, they are advertised and they involve an array of weapons, including an assault rifle, that were well-maintained, with ammunition available. These 'shows of strength' - for that is what they are - require an organisational structure, planning, the movement of men, weapons and ammunition, as well as training.

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It is clear to me that these two events show that both the Provisional IRA and the INLA have more than just dormant structures.

It is perfectly clear they have active structures and can easily lay their hands on weapons and ammunition, which can be delivered to a specific spot at a specific time for these gruesome demonstrations that we all thought were a thing of the past.

What is more worrying is that they seem to do this without fear in broad daylight at filmed events with an audience and individuals present without their faces covered, in an act of defiance.

This lack of respect for the law, for the safety of those within their own communities, and the disregard for the Belfast Agreement and their pledge to be on ceasefire, creates an escalating narrative that armed republican groups are behind the scenes vying for control and domination of their communities once again.

The callous and needless murder of journalist Lyra McKee should have been a turning point in our troubled history since the Belfast Agreement.

Yet, we have seen those linked to dissident republicanism elected to the local council in the very city in which Lyra was murdered.

Now we see these shows of strength, which are less about honouring a dead terrorist and more about showing the local communities that men with guns are still here to control them should they step out of line - and they, of course, get to decide what and where the line is.

There are fundamental questions to be asked of both the Secretary of State Karen Bradley and PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton.

These include an updated assessment of the capabilities of these terrorist organisations. Are they genuinely still on ceasefire, or are they in the process of rearming and restructuring?

We also need to know where these weapons are coming from and what structures are being used to transport them around the country and train individuals in their use.

If these are new weapons - they are certainly well-maintained - then how did they end up in the hands of terrorist groups supposedly on ceasefire? Are these weapons from the hides where they should have been decommissioned? Have these hides been compromised? Are they new weapons that have been sourced and brought into Northern Ireland illegally after decommissioning was supposed to have been completed? Or are some of these weapons - including the pistols used at Peter Rooney's funeral - actually legally held personal protection weapons? If that is the case, then what mechanisms does the PSNI have in place to check if they are being used illegally?

The Paramilitary Crime Task Force must be proactive in investigating these issues as a matter of urgency and it must come forward and make a statement so that the public know that their concerns are being taken seriously.

The type of coercive control used by the main terrorist groups is about ensuring they - and not the dissidents - have control over large swathes of Belfast.

The PSNI must be swift, proactive and ruthless in breaking this stranglehold and ensuring that it is a culture of law and order that prevails in our capital city, not some passively accepted terrorist subculture.

The platitudes from some political parties over the death of Lyra McKee, while remaining silent as men with guns glorify the very type of terrorists responsible for her murder, are absolutely abhorrent.

We have become used to the electoral success of political parties who promoted and justified the butchering of men, women and children as a legitimate way to achieve a political aim.

But we really cannot stand idly by and watch as these events take centre stage once again in Northern Ireland.

There should be an outcry at the sight of masked men firing automatic weapons at funerals, but instead there is near silence.

That concerns me greatly, because it tells me that some people are prepared to accept this as the new normal.

It also shows just how limited some people's commitment to reconciliation really is and how the shadow of the gunman in Northern Ireland has never truly gone away.

Doug Beattie is Ulster Unionist MLA for Upper Bann. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in Afghanistan and is the party's justice spokesman

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