Paramilitaries in North increasingly viewed as ‘gangsters’ by young, MPs hear

Coercive control of women and young people also emerged ‘very strongly’ in research

Paramilitaries in the North are increasingly viewed as “gangsters” by young people while others believe they “protect” communities due to mistrust of police, MPs at Westminster have heard.

Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) senior criminology lecturer Dr Siobhán McAlister has researched paramilitarism for 15 years and said the “dominant narrative” of illegal organisations “keeping hard drugs out of communities” and “dealing with so-called paedophiles” was not borne out by their studies.

“Perhaps these groups promote this narrative but we found very little evidence to support that. We also found that support for them can shift, particularly at times of political unrest and instability, when they’re seen to play a role in preserving community identity.

“So I think this political underbelly of them hasn’t been lost”.

Vulnerabilities

Giving evidence to members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the first day of its inquiry into the effect of paramilitarism on society, Dr McAlister warned that the “vulnerabilities” of communities were exploited by armed paramilitaries, especially when their identities were “perceived to be threatened”.

However, what makes paramilitaries different from those involved in organised crime is that they’re “very much in the community and part of it”, she added.

Asked by committee chair Simon Hoare if “gangster” was a “good word” to use in relation to those involved, Dr McAlister replied: “Gangster is a term that’s increasingly used in communities and by young people to describe paramilitaries – but not solely.

“They do prey on communities, they commit crime, they exploit children and young people but in some instances they are seen as protecting the community as well. Part of that is around lack of trust in the police.

“So they’re effectively taking on the protective duties of their own communities . . . My sense, and it is grounded in research, is that there is a level of control through violence and intimidation.”

Coercive control of women and young people also emerged “very strongly” in research with victims believing they were “deserving of the violence and exploitation served on them”, the committee heard.

Prejudiced

Dr Colm Walsh, a research fellow at QUB’s School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work, revealed details of his work which showed just four per cent of women felt the police could protect them if they were under threat.

Sixty per cent of young people believed the police were “prejudiced against their community”.

“That creates a context where even if they recognise there’s a threat against them, there’s limited opportunities to access support – and even if they did see support was accessible there is a perception in communities that [going to police] is not done. This is seen as going outside the community and outside the ‘norms’.

Mr Hoare asked about the influence of “invisible but often pernicious” social media platforms to recruit young people to paramilitary groups, and read from a loyalist Facebook post which he described as a “clarion call to violence and illegality”.

Dr Walsh said there was evidence of a “social media aspect” targeting young people to attend riots that “kind of go viral” among peer groups.

Duncan Morrow, professor in politics and director of Community Engagement at Ulster University, expressed concerns about the material social media companies allowed to be posted.

However, he pointed out that online activity could also provide an “indicator” of what was actually going on within communities. He added: “There’s no doubt at all that it [social media] amplifies the coercion on young people.”