Belfast Telegraph

When is a Fresh Start not a fresh start? When it's a false start

Secretary of State James Brokenshire continues to refuse to meet loyalist leaders - the only people capable of driving transformation in paramilitary organisations, argue Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson

Those who decide the allocation of substantial finances and resources under the Fresh Start Agreement (a document which, by the way, emerged as a response to two republican murders) over a four-year period to facilitate the ending of paramiltarism will need to be very creative about how that "ending" is envisaged.

Perhaps the best one can hope for is that paramilitary organisations will cease to exist in present form, but that the leaderships of those organisations will be committed to any transformation process and remain in place for the foreseeable future to ensure progress.

Under the auspices of Fresh Start the twin-strategy approach of a heavy law and order clampdown on the one hand, while supporting positive work to assist communities in transition on the other, invites not a convergent approach, but a divergent and counterproductive one.

At the outset the possible conflation of paramilitarism with criminality means that the transformation of, in this instance, loyalist paramilitary organisations is seen in law and order rather than social terms.

Not surprisingly, given this perspective, even though the vast majority connected to loyalist paramilitary organisations are not involved in crime, the inference is that they are.

A more constructive starting-point to a credible transformation process is to see criminality not as a category of paramilitary behaviour, or membership, but an action of individual choice.

Many loyalists would rather all money from Fresh Start be given to the police to deal with criminality more effectively. They welcome such action, but this is overlooked.

The suggestion is this is a mere diversion to make loyalists who articulate such a view not look like criminals when really they are.

The popular insistence on this reinforces the sense that loyalists are not only criminals, but that this is all they are and can be.

It is easy and convenient to see the problem of paramilitary transformation as just a matter of walking away. But what would predictably happen?

Will the vacuum created by leaders removing themselves from any positive influence be filled by some self-generating community confidence, or a new, younger breed intent on exerting their presence through intimidation and coercion?

One obvious obstruction for moving organisations from paramilitary structures of influence to non-paramilitary structures of influence comes from the tendency for commentators across the board to keep telling loyalists what the problems are rather than allowing loyalists to explain the problems as they see them.

If this was encouraged more loyalists might not only take greater ownership of those problems, but possible solutions, too.

One has to be realistic about the possibilities of bringing paramilitarism, as it currently exists, to a close and look at what is likely to work, rather than reach for easy and comforting responses that will change nothing.

Why do paramilitary groups continue to exist nearly 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, many ask? Perhaps they might look at the late Executive and similarly ask how, 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, parties cannot share power, or make government work.

The political environment is polarised and so hardly disposed to positive change. Where is the inspiration for transformation in Northern Ireland to come from?

Let us propose something radical at the start, and that is a financial imperative to build accountability. Let there be a large increase in state funding to support economic development in deprived areas to help improve educational attainment and job creation.

Let leading loyalist figures be funded to help and support moves to bring about low-crime or zero-crime zones, and let organisational leaders demonstrate a collective responsible leadership as part of a civic network with business, government, schools, churches, charities and community groups.

Furthermore, let there be very real financial incentives to achieve agreed outcomes for transformation across communities as a whole.

Money is an influence and should be better used. Financing and resourcing, carefully but also creatively applied, should be welcomed as a positive intervention - not seen as a reward for those who don't deserve it.

As is so often the case, the idea of the possibility of change is dependent on what the reference point is for decision-making.

The best way to get others to oppose that change is to tell them it will be imposed on them regardless.

It may well make sense to the tick-box and output-driven mentality of public funding bodies to see that a further 50 have been arrested, because that is an outcome that can be registered on a sheet of paper.

But how can a psychological shift in a community be registered and where does a positive move today which might not manifest as progress until 10 years' time fit in the model of instant results?

These questions are very important, because they shape how the issue of transformation is understood and judged.

The reality of change is that it has to be driven by the key stakeholders who are best placed to wield influence.

The leaders of paramilitary organisations are the foundation for transformation and, uncomfortable though that may be for many, it is only by supporting and building accountability into the work of those leaders that change is likely to come about.

The political parties have done nothing to help and James Brokenshire still refuses to meet loyalist leaders, the very people needed to drive transformation.

From the outside, Northern Ireland is showing a dearth of imagination and there is no appetite for taking the risks that need to be taken.

The anticipations of renewal which so energised Northern Ireland at the time of the Good Friday Agreement have dissolved and few now expect the DUP or Sinn Fein to move out of the silos they have solidly created and insulated for themselves. What this points to is that the wider context is a real factor in whether change is more or less possible.

Along with the potential conflicting strategies of Fresh Start, a media obsession with the criminality of loyalist organisations means any potential new thinking has to try and be heard above a chorus of considerable hostility.

Discouraged by this hostility, the political parties and the British Government decline to engage with loyalist leaders and yet, unsupported, these leaders are expected to manufacture and build a process of change that will improve the lives of those in their communities.

Academics identified to conduct research on areas of paramilitary activity through a series of micro-projects as part of Fresh Start are unlikely to have any useful impact either, given that the legitimacy of much academic work tends not to stray too far from received wisdom (especially when produced for funding bodies who expect outcomes to complement a specific agenda).

Who is realistically going to conclude that the whole premise of Fresh Start is ill-founded when being funded to work within the protocols and aims of that initiative? Where are the critical perspectives to encourage imagination and risk-taking for change to come from?

Micro-projects may show up some points of interest, but in terms of contributing to and reinforcing a broad and inclusive plan for change the impact is likely to be, at best, slight.

Any transformation, which must surely place education and aspiration at the centre, has to be a long-term effort, yet governments, at most, think in four-year cycles and, in reality, little more than two.

A long-term process of change needs a long-term infrastructure of planning and resourcing, with 40 years, rather than four, a more realistic timescale and recovery from conflict needs to be seen in generational rather than governmental lifespans.

All initiatives should work to a single, agreed strategy for social and educational redevelopment for Northern Ireland as a whole with both short and medium-term goals convergent to that strategy.

Those who take the easy route of representing all loyalists as criminals and who have nothing constructive to say about how paramilitary organisations might be ended have had it easy for too long in Northern Ireland.

Of course, there are people from loyalist communities involved in crime - just as there are criminals in every sphere of life.

But to depict loyalism as a whole as little more than a law and order problem is not only short-sighted, but detrimental to the prospect of change itself.

There is an urgent need to rethink what ending paramilitarism means, what it will look like and what needs to be done to make it happen, and loyalists have to be at the centre of that debate.

To carry on as before will not only ingrain, but more likely than not guarantee further disappointment for all.

Perhaps, in trying to meet the challenge of ending paramilitarism, we should start by recalling the words often attributed to Albert Einstein: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

Dr Graham Spencer is Reader in Social and Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth. Rev Chris Hudson is based at All-Souls Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Belfast

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