Paramilitaries active on large scale in North, study shows

Republican and loyalist gangs killed 22 and forced almost 4,000 from home since 2006

Newly compiled figures reveal the scale of ongoing paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, with 1,100 bombings and shootings over the last decade, almost 800 punishment attacks and nearly 4,000 cases of people being forced from their homes.

Punishment attacks are continuing at a high rate. Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) statistics show there were 279 paramilitary-style shootings and 508 paramilitary-style assaults.

Public housing authorities confirmed the scale of paramilitary intimidation. Threats and violence were used by paramilitaries to force people from their homes in 3,899 cases across Northern Ireland between April 2006 and March 2015. Many of the victims of this intimidation were targeted because of disputes with paramilitaries, or allegations of antisocial behaviour.

The figures were compiled by Detail Data from police, prison, courts and public transport records. Detail Data is a Big Lottery-funded project produced by Belfast investigative journalism outlet the Detail and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action.


From 2006 to 2015, republican and loyalist paramilitary groups were found to be responsible for 22 murders and hundreds of road and rail closures.

Organised crime

Police believe 33 of Northern Ireland’s 134 organised crime gangs have direct links to paramilitaries and that they make tens of millions of pounds each year from activities such as fuel laundering and drug dealing.

Data secured through Freedom of Information requests to Translink and the PSNI also show the prevalence of security alerts, particularly as a result of bomb warnings , and attacks which forced road closures and stopped rail travel.

From 2013 to 2015, there were 193 road closures, while between 2006 and 2015 there were 176 security alerts on rail lines, halting more than 4,000 train services.

The Northern Ireland Courts Service confirmed that from 2007 to 2015 there were just over 80 convictions secured under terrorism legislation, leading to 48 prison terms.

Security services stress convictions are also secured for paramilitary-related activity under non-terrorism act legislation, while they are also disrupting attacks planned by paramilitaries.

For example, from 2006 to 2015, police seized 849 firearms and 495kg of explosives. Nearly 400 people were arrested and charged under section 41 of the Terrorism Act between 2006 and 2015, according to PSNI statistics.

Data distortions

Police Federation chairman Mark Lindsay said the full picture is obscured by how data is recorded.

“That is very much down to government recording methodology which states that a terrorist attack is one that is against a national security target,” he said.

“Our issue is that it doesn’t actually give you a true picture of where we are. I’m sure it would be captured somewhere but we are missing all the paramilitary attacks, all the incidents of terrorism that aren’t necessarily directed against police or military.”

Among the first barriers to evaluating the scale of the problem is confirming the size of the various illegal groups.

A question raised in the House of Lords in recent weeks by Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey asking about the numbers still involved in loyalist and republican paramilitary groups failed to secure an answer from government.

The PSNI told Detail Data it would not provide estimates.

Last month, PSNI assistant chief constable Will Kerr said dissident republican groups included hundreds of people.

Terrorist experience

Speaking after the death of prison officer Adrian Ismay who had suffered serious leg injuries when a bomb exploded under the van he was driving in Belfast, Asst Chief Constable Kerr said: “There are a few hundred active DRs [dissident republicans] who are involved in active dissident republican operations, but there would be a much smaller number, most of whom would have very significant terrorist experience, who are involved in directing terrorism and the leadership of these groups as well.”

While the dissident groups were dangerous, their activity was “not on the scale [or at] the pace of the past, and it won’t return to that”.

He likened the dissidents to “playground bullies in a school where everyone else has moved on”.

According to Rev Dr Gary Mason of Rethinking Conflict, an organisation that has worked closely with loyalist paramilitaries to deliver peaceful outcomes, loyalist paramilitary groups remain large.

“At the heart of loyalist groups, there would be a leadership of 30-40 people, then a membership of several thousand.”

Alan McBride of Belfast’s Wave Trauma Centre, whose wife Sharon was killed by the IRA in the 1993 Shankill bombing, said he sees the impact of ongoing activity every day.

“At least 50 per cent of our referrals today are in relation to ongoing intimidation.

“It is stuff that happened last week or the week before. In terms of this centre, we would have on average 30 to 35 new referrals a month,” said Mr McBride.