Belfast Telegraph

What would a 'civilianised' UVF actually look like?

The murder of Ian Ogle led to renewed calls for the loyalist terrorist groups to demilitarise. Key to such a transition is the acceptance that any remaining conflict is one of ideas and not violence, argue Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson

A UVF mural at the bottom of the Newtownards Road in Belfast
A UVF mural at the bottom of the Newtownards Road in Belfast
Floral tributes outside Cluan Place in east Belfast after the killing of Ian Ogle

The recent call from Church representatives for loyalist paramilitary organisations to civilianise in the wake of Ian Ogle's murder brings to the fore the pressing question of what purpose such organisations have in a "post-conflict" society.

But it also begs another important and more complex question - and that is what does civilianisation mean? We believe that, among other things, civilianisation should specifically engage with three core areas: citizenship, education and learning, and the inclusive values of Britishness.

A determination to consider and discuss these areas with the strategic aim of creating a dynamic appeal that can motivate communities to debate not just what they are but, more importantly, what they can be, offers an exciting opportunity for renewal if grasped.

What responsibilities can individuals agree and work on to improve the environment in which they and their families live? How can differences be used not to stifle movement, but to drive it? What is required for perspectives to emerge that are proactive rather than reactive? The past is well-known, but what does the future look like?

These questions, if they are to be encountered with any energy, indicate the need for thinking, discussing and imagining. They also point towards the need for listening, contesting and then accepting that alternatives are possible.

Education is not just confined to arguments about the need for school qualifications (vital though this is), but, in this context, calls for a greater knowledge of how British democracy works, how the media reinforces stereotypes that need to be broken down and how national identity issues can be discussed and managed in a context of creativity and imagination.

On national identity, it is worth remembering that British history is a product of ambiguity as well as certainty, drawn from a tension between puritanical assertions of intolerance and exclusion and liberal assertions that stress tolerance and inclusion.

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The conflict in Northern Ireland pushed many towards the puritanical position, as defence became a way of life.

But what is surely needed now is a wider regard for the value of ambiguity and its importance in creating the space where change becomes imagined and then takes form because of that imagination.

Unlike certainty, which we all crave and cannot have, ambiguity tends to unsettle because it refers to a number of meanings rather than one.

This ability to engage with multiple meanings is not only the foundation of critical thinking and awareness, but encourages greater confidence in dealing with uncertainty.

The ambiguous space is where the possibility of alternatives can be found and where the potential for change exists. This is also where learning takes place. It is the point where what we know comes up against what we don't know and what happens because of that collision.

This means that differences are important and can be divisive if kept apart, but offer conciliatory possibilities if absorbed into new ways of talking and doing. This, however, requires using differences with each other rather than against each other.

And such differences are notable within communities. The Independent Reporting Commission report, published last year, highlighted that there are those in loyalist communities who want paramilitaries to remain, but others who want them to go.

How can these two opposing positions be brought together? We believe a civilianisation process is a way of accommodating these two seemingly incompatible positions.

As a process, and not an event, civilianisation can enable those who want paramilitaries to stay to move with the organisations themselves as they become advocates for motivation around the areas we have identified.

If handled coherently across the paramilitary organisations themselves, this should also convince those who want them to stay that a powerful and necessary alternative is in place. That alternative is the space where the concerns of those who want organisations to go can also be seen to be having impact.

Fear thrives more on clarity than ambiguity, because clarity gives fear credibility, while ambiguity, because it presents a number of possibilities, makes fear less compelling. The schisms and fractures in unionism and loyalism are evidence of the need for sameness, but also the resentment of that sameness.

Within the broader unionist, loyalist and Protestant culture more generally, there appears to be an underlying disregard for authority that makes a common position on most things particularly difficult.

The accusation that such people know what they don't want, but not what they do want has some basis to it, but is all-too-easily used as the referable stereotype.

Republicans face this dilemma, too, but seem held more closely together by marginal differences that oscillate around one key point: a united Ireland.

The difficulty, however, is how to turn this conventional position of resistance, or mistrust, into a progressive and proactive motivation when it comes to dealing with the unfamiliar and the new.

If the development of a learning culture means anything, it is being vigilant to the kind of human being we are constantly invited to be by others and to know how this serves the interests of those others foremost. Once we have that understanding, we can move towards considering our own situation and concerns in relation to what is said, not because of what is said.

For the civilianisation of paramilitary organisations to succeed, there needs to be an acceptance that, if there is still a conflict, it is now one of ideas and not violence between armed groups. Where what is needed has to be striven for not through the routine threats of intimidation and zero-sum politics, but the ambiguous and shifting nature of listening and talking.

For some, the idea of civilianisation suggests those affiliated to paramilitary organisations now living their lives without that association by simply walking away. But this already exists and the vast majority are law-abiding. The small number of individuals that commit crime under the guise of being part of a paramilitary organisation would no doubt be criminals without such a connection and, if that is so, then arguments that stress if organisations would just leave the stage so the criminality would go with them are false.

Criminality exists everywhere and the culture of gangs is a global phenomenon. For that reason we believe that, if civilianisation is to work, it has to be much more than walking away. It has to be a deliberate movement from one place to another. That journey can be best understood as moving from the clarity of the past to the ambiguity of the future, in moving from what we have been and are to what we can be. The three areas we highlight provide a means by which to help bridge this gap.

The citizen, by definition, is socially and politically active. Learning is about engaging with uncertainties to forge new possibilities and Britishness provides a sense of collective identity that enables difference to exist and thrive in the same shared space.

Civilianisation should be a reconnection with these areas, drawing from them individually and collectively to envisage what a positive future looks like, what it should deliver and enabling a wider circulation of ideas about how it might be reached.

Civilianisation, to be successful, must come from confidence and agreement about the need for a new beginning and the aspirations that can be achievable through that new beginning if attitudes and thinking allow it.

Seen as a stonewall demand and nothing else, it has little chance of coming to fruition. But seen in the context of something bigger and better it has every chance of working.

Dr Graham Spencer is Reader in Social and Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth. Rev Chris Hudson is minister of All Souls Church in Belfast

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