Paramilitarism a ‘clear and present danger’ in North, reporting body finds

Commission says formal process required to see the paramilitary organisations disband

A loyalist paramilitary mural is displayed on the Newtownards road in Belfast in January. Photograph: Getty Images

A loyalist paramilitary mural is displayed on the Newtownards road in Belfast in January. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Paramilitarism remains a “clear and present danger” in Northern Ireland and a process of political engagement similar to that which led to the Belfast Agreement is needed to “definitively” bring it to an end, according to the latest report from the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC).

The Commissioners said that while they were “encouraged by good work being undertaken”, they remained “concerned about the risks posed to society by the continuing existence of paramilitary structures which can be harnessed for the purposes of violence or the threat of violence.”

They also said the reaction to Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol has led to “new complexities and increasing prominence around paramilitarism” while street disorder during 2021 had “led to speculation about the potential for a resurgence of paramilitary activity.”

They called for the goal of tackling paramilitarism to be made a “high priority” in any new Programme for Government for the Northern Executive and warned “political leadership will be key.”

The Fourth Report on progress towards ending paramilitary activity was published by the IRC on Tuesday.

The IRC was established following the Fresh Start Agreement (2015) to report on progress towards ending paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland, and to report on and inform the implementation of the Northern Executive’s Action Plan for Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime.

Its members are John McBurney and Monica McWilliams - nominated by the Northern Ireland Executive – the Irish Government’s nominee Tim O’Connor, and Mitchell Reiss, nominated by the UK government.

The Commissioners concluded that “new structures have been put in place to tackle paramilitarism, and new approaches are underway but more needs to be done, across all relevant agencies and departments, working alongside local communities.

In order to achieve “the comprehensive ending of paramilitarism”, they said, a process of Group Transition ( a process whereby paramilitary groups transition out of being paramilitaries) was required and should be added to the Twin Track approach ( which involves policing and justice responses while trying to tackle the underlying socio-economic issues) which was already being implemented.

“A comprehensive and credible pathway to ending paramilitarism is now needed and hence we recommend that a process be put in place to assess the potential for Group Transition,” they said.

The disbandment of paramilitary organisations, the authors, said, “has to involve voluntary action by the groups and therefore their co-operation, and so we believe that a dedicated, formal process of engagement with an end goal of disbandment is required.”

In the same way a “process of political engagement” leading ultimately to the Belfast Agreement was needed to bring the Troubles to an end, “a similar process is now necessary to definitively end paramilitarism.”

They acknowledged the “major sensitivities and challenges” around Group Transition but said that after nearly five years working in the IRC they could see “no means” by which the Fresh Start goal of ending paramilitarism “once and for all” could be achieved without it.

“Our call, therefore, is to the two governments, the parties and civic society to give urgent consideration to a comprehensive process of Group Transition,” the Commissioners said.

They also warned that the UK government’s proposals to introduce a statute of limitations barring Troubles-related prosecutions, civil cases and inquests would have “major ramifications for the ending of paramilitarism” and it “could have a material impact on the timing of the disbandment of the paramilitary groups.”

The report also summarised the current situation regarding reported paramilitary activity by both loyalists and republicans and said that in general there had been “a downward trend in security-related incidents over the past ten years, with the exception of paramilitary style assaults, which have generally increased”, though it noted trends in the last two financial years may have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.