Paramilitarism remains a “clear and present danger” for Northern Ireland and formal engagement with illegal groups is needed to achieve “disbandment”, according to the latest Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) report.
Published on Wednesday, it called for “urgent consideration” to be given to the establishment of a formal process – including the appointment of an independent person authorised to speak to loyalist and republican groups themselves.
Commissioners warned there was still “much to to be concerned about” but also highlighted a drop in paramilitary shootings and assaults as well as progress in government initiatives aimed at tackling paramilitary crime. A total of 33 attacks were recorded for 2021/22, the lowest number since 1985/86.
They identify educational underachievement as a “key underlying factor in the persistence of paramilitarism” and welcomed a wrap-around project for thousands of children “facing significant challenges”.
However, they acknowledged that paramilitaries continue to exercise “coercive control” in some deprived communities, where they are “embedded and are part of the fabric of daily life there”.
“It is also the case that in some areas their presence and involvement are reflective of the wishes of cohorts of the community, with the groups involved being seen as in effect part of the so-called authority structure of that community. This is not an acceptable situation and underlines all the more the urgency of undertaking the necessary steps to bring paramilitarism to an end.”
They said: “It remains our view that the risks posed to society by the continuing existence of paramilitary groups and structures mean that paramilitarism remains a clear and present danger in and for Northern Ireland.
“In the last year reaction to political developments, particularly relating to the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, led to new instability at political level, which in turn fed speculation about the potential for a resurgence of paramilitary activity. A number of paramilitary-related incidents served to heighten that speculation.”
The IRC was established in August 2017 by an international agreement between the British and Irish governments under the terms of the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement at Stormont.
Its remit is to report on progress towards ending paramilitarism.
Commission 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.
This is the Commission’s fifth report and reinforces the “necessity” for a formal “transition process” to engage with groups.
“It remains our belief that in addition to the Twin Track approach of policing/justice responses and measures addressing socio-economic issues in the communities where the paramilitaries operate – which is delivering valuable results – a comprehensive and credible process of engagement with the paramilitary groups themselves around Group Transition, with the aim of disbandment, is now required.
“We urge the two Governments, the NI parties and civic society to give urgent consideration to such a process, building on models from elsewhere, including the concept of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration.
“We also believe there would be merit in preparing the ground for a formal process. This could be done, for instance, by the Governments appointing (with the support of the Executive) an Independent Person who would be authorised to speak to the various interested parties, including the paramilitary groups themselves.”
As the 25th anniversary of The Belfast Agreement approaches next April, commissioners say that efforts should be re-doubled “at all levels” to achieve “the vision of that Agreement of a Northern Ireland free of paramilitarism and based entirely on the principles of peace and democracy”.