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Newton Emerson: Loyalist attack on Coveney requires a serious response

Government’s policy means response could include carrot as well as stick

It might surprise many citizens of the Republic to learn their government is closely involved in ending loyalist paramilitarism. This comes under a policy to end all paramilitarism, developed through three major agreements since 2014 between the British and Irish governments and Stormont parties.

Entitled ‘Tackling Paramilitarism’, the policy is described as “promoting a culture of lawfulness”. The naivety and cynicism of the early years of the peace process, when community funding and jobs were splashed about in the hope of buying people off, is to continue to a lesser extent – but in parallel with rigorous enforcement of the law, to build public confidence and further motivate paramilitaries to “transition”.

Tackling Paramilitarism is now in its second four-year phase, running to 2024. Dublin negotiated this in detail, accepted specific tasks under it in 2016 as recommended by an independent panel, and appointed one of the four commissioners who report on progress.

The Irish Government's responsibilities lean heavily towards tackling cross-Border organised crime

Irish governments have responsibility with their British counterparts for five of the 43 tasks in the policy: tightening anti-terrorism legislation, cracking down on organised crime, recovering criminal assets, extending amnesties on decommissioning and agreeing mechanisms to deal with the past.

The latest progress report, published in December 2021, found Dublin was acting on all its commitments and commended Ministers and An Garda Síochána.

Southern involvement in this policy is often assumed to relate solely to addressing republican paramilitarism, past and present. Any engagement with loyalism is imagined as peace process glad-handing of the type pioneered by former president Mary McAleese. Ireland’s nominee to the reporting commission, retired diplomat Tim O’Connor, was McAleese’s secretary general.

However, the Irish government's responsibilities lean heavily towards tackling cross-Border organised crime, through measures such as supporting the Joint Agency Task Force, led by An Garda Síochána and the PSNI. With dissident republicans a busted flush and the IRA having officially transitioned to an electoral support organisation, that leaves loyalist gangs firmly in focus, even viewed from the southern side of the Border.

Hijacking a van to transport a hoax device was theatrics to signal a major escalation of intent

When the Joint Task Force was established in 2016, PSNI assistant chief constable Will Kerr told The Irish Times republicans were more involved in smuggling, loyalists more involved with organised crime, but both combined with other domestic and foreign crime gangs in an all-Ireland problem.

He added the leaderships of the UDA and UVF “want to move the groups forward”, and in the years since, imperfect but measurable progress has been made.

So the UVF hoax bomb attack on Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, at a peace process glad-handing event in north Belfast last Friday, is not just the Brexit protocol issue with which everyone is wearily familiar. It is also the unravelling of a broader policy towards loyalism that directly involves Dublin and the security of the Republic.

The UVF could have disrupted last Friday’s event with a threatening telephone call. Hijacking a van to transport a hoax device was theatrics to signal a major escalation of intent. It could also be seen as weakness: hijacking is an unpopular tactic that leaves a trail of evidence and witnesses.

Loyalists claim their next steps will be attacking Irish government property in Northern Ireland, using weapons held back from decommissioning, followed by attacks in Dublin. There is no threat “to any civilian population”, a loyalist source told the Irish News yesterday.

The Irish Government has to weigh up the credibility of these threats, given that loyalism is reportedly divided over them, and the security services will be watching every move loyalists make. Ministers must judge the risk of escalation running out of control: last year, the main loyalist organisations successfully switched anti-protocol protests on then off – but only because they could not control associated street disturbances.

Loyalism wants the removal or near-removal of the protocol, which might not appear to be in Dublin's gift

Having made its assessments, Dublin then has to recalibrate carrot and stick. Like it or not, Tackling Paramilitarism pursues its moral purpose with amoral pragmatism. This is perfectly understood in Northern Ireland, where politicians and press have warned the UVF it could lose its £5 million cut from Stormont’s ‘Communities in Transition’ fund.

Loyalism wants the removal or near-removal of the protocol, which might not appear to be in Dublin’s gift. The European Union is not about to punch a hole in the single market at the behest of gangsters in Belfast, even if Ireland requested it.

Yet there is an obvious position Dublin could take that ‘promotes lawfulness’.

The sea border is necessary in part because of the risk of smuggling across the land border. The Government could offer to argue for a lower sea border as organised crime, including loyalism, is put out of business. More support for the joint task force, and perhaps more funding for transition, would signal that intent.

Many people, North and South, are appalled at squalid negotiation with paramilitarism. But that is the policy, even the peace process itself. Unless the Irish Government wants to abandon it, then even while being threatened, it must press on.