Paramilitarism still ‘profoundly destabilising’ in Northern Ireland

Reporting body says three deaths linked to paramilitaries in last 12 months

Writer and journalist Lyra McKee was one of three people killed by paramilitaries  in the last 12 months, according to the Independent Reporting Commission. Photograph: EPA

Writer and journalist Lyra McKee was one of three people killed by paramilitaries in the last 12 months, according to the Independent Reporting Commission. Photograph: EPA

 

Paramilitarism remains a “profoundly destabilising factor” in Northern Ireland which carries “serious risks” to peace and reconciliation, according to the latest report from the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC).

It also warned Brexit has “the potential to add fuel to the fire of continued paramilitarism.”

The body - which reports annually on progress towards ending paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland - presented its second annual report to the Irish and British governments at midday.

Established as part of the Fresh Start Agreement in 2015, the IRC is made up of four commissioners - John McBurney and Monica McWilliams, who were nominated by the Northern Ireland Executive, Tim O’Connor, nominated by the Irish Government, and Mitchell Reiss by the British government.

The report noted that while there has been a downward trend in paramilitary violence over the last 10 years, the number of deaths linked to paramilitary organisations and the number of paramilitary-style attacks carried out since the commission’s last report in October of last year had increased.

It was “disturbing” to note that the number of paramilitary-related deaths had increased to three in the period from October 1st, 2018 to September 30th of this year as compared to one in the previous 12 months.

These deaths included the murder of 29-year-old Lyra McKee by dissident republicans in Derry in April and the killing, by loyalists, of East Belfast community worker Ian Ogle in January. There have also been a number of attempts by dissident republicans to kill police officers in Northern Ireland this year.

It is clear, the commissioners wrote, that “paramilitarism remains a stark reality in Northern Ireland,” and warned that there are “no grounds for complacency.”

Coercive control

While those “clinging” to a belief in violence as a legitimate expression of a political viewpoint are “diminishing,” they said, “it continues to hold some sway.”

They also noted their concern that “paramilitaries continue to exert coercive control in relation to bonfires in some areas.”

They highlighted the “political vacuum” created by the continued absence of a powersharing Assembly at Stormont - which collapsed in January 2017 amid a row over a botched renewable heating scheme - and the “continuing uncertainty” surrounding Brexit, both of which “make the task of bringing paramilitarism to an end immeasurably more difficult.”

The “greatest encourament to the effort underway to end paramilitarism would be the return of political decision-making to Stormont,” the commissioners wrote.

“The issues involved are so deep-rooted and multi-faceted that only a process actively and vigorously led by those with a democratic mandate at political level can deliver on what is needed.”

In the context of Brexit, the commissioners acknowleged “the commentary by many about the potential of Brexit to be the cause of a return to violence - including through an increase in paramilitary activity.

“We understand why people make that claim, but the issues surrounding paramilitarism, and why it continues to exist, long pre-date Brexit.”

However, the uncertainty around Brexit, and references to a potential hard Border on the island of Ireland, are “being used by some as a pretext and justification for the continuation of paramilitary structures.

“This pretext and justification will remain a stubborn reality as long as uncertainty persists,” the commissioners found.

‘Urgency’

The commissioners called for a “renewal of urgency” around efforts to bring paramilitarism to an end in Northern Ireland, and made a number of recommendations, including more resources for neighbourhood policing, measures to speed up the justice system and greater use of asset recovery powers.

They also proposed the establishment of an agency to focus solely on civil recovery of the proceeds of crime in Northern Ireland, and consideration of a “transition process” for paramilitaries.

The overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland, they said, have made it clear that they wish to see paramilitarism gone, but wishing has not made it happen.

For this reason, the commissioners said, “there needs to be a wider, deeper and more realistic understanding around what is required for a definite end to paramilitarism.”

They recommended that the ‘Twin Track’ approach put forward in their first report, in October of last year - which combined a policing and justice response with tackling of the “deep socio-economic issues” in communities where paramilitaries operate - needed to go further.

It is time, they said, for a “whole government approach” and “urged that the logical conclusion is that the tackling of paramilitarism be incorporated into the draft programme for government as a new dedicated outcome.”

A “further complexity” was the connection between paramilitarism and criminality. There are those, they said, who “use paramilitarism as a cloak for criminality … bringing a definitive end to paramilitarism will require an approach that takes account of this complexity also.”

The commissioners also called for a “major public debate” to begin around the ending of paramilitarism and the wider societal questions surrounding the peace process.

“It is very clear that paramilitarism is not the only issue of unfinished business of the peace process,” they wrote. “If there is to be a meaningful debate on all of the dimensions of paramilitarism and how to end it, then that means looking at all aspects of the peace process that remain unresolved.

“A wider public debate has not yet taken place on the scale and depth needed and we believe that it now needs to happen.”