Ending paramilitarism: the blueprint

29 Sep 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 29 Sep 2017

Nice wheels: the seized Range Rover

Bringing paramilitarism to an end is the biggest single task facing Northern Ireland society. Scope explores what is being done about it. 

There has been much publicity this week about the announcement of the new Paramilitary Crime Task Force which brings together the PSNI, National Crime Agency and HRMC.

Anyone who has studied the criminal career of Al Capone will know just how potent this kind of combination can be. Law enforcement agencies will be bringing a range of sophisticated investigatory techniques to target paramilitaries, seize their assets and interrogate their tax returns. We can expect results.

At the launch PSNI put on display a gleaming black Range Rover, early fruits from this work.

Inevitably law enforcement action will dominate coverage of the efforts to end paramilitarism. Yet this is only part of the solution to a problem that casts a shadow over so many of our communities. The Third Sector will have just as big a role to play. It is important to explain the context.

Under the Fresh Start Agreement a three person panel comprising Lord Alderdice, John McBurney and Professor Monica McWilliams was set up to examine what is required to end paramilitarism. It reported back last May with 43 recommendations and before its collapse the last Executive produced an action plan to enact them and made the necessary budgetary provisions, £50 million over five years.

So, unlike health reform for example, this is one government programme that can be pursued despite the absence of political leadership.

The scale and nature of the challenge is clearly spelled out in the panel’s report.

 It interpreted its brief “as aiming to create conditions in which groups would transform, wither away, completely change and lose their significance.”

As part of this it said it was important to consider how or when society is prepared, legally, socially and politically, to stop treating the remaining groups as paramilitary organisations and, instead, treat them as organised crime gangs.

More than 20 years after the ceasefires paramilitary groups continue to exist and members of them are involved in violence, intimidation and other crimes for personal gain within communities:

“Their influence is based on the fact that they hold, or have previously held, leadership roles in a paramilitary group and continue to use the group’s name to exert their authority. While the impact on communities varies depending on the locality and group, these issues are encountered in both Loyalist and Republican communities, sometimes in a major way, ” the panel concluded.

It also cited examples of larger scale crime such as smuggling, fuel-laundering drug dealing and extortion.

The Executive Action plan which ensused involves every government department, a range of statutory agencies and crucially, the community and voluntary sector.

At the task force launch the interim Head of the Civil Service David Sterling said: “We recognise that this is a collective endeavour as we all have a responsibility to help create a fairer, more prosperous society where no-one is above the law and paramilitaries have no place. And that is what the Executive’s action plan aims to do.”

The plan involves four inter-linked approaches, as follows:

Long term prevention

The panel report is blunt about the scale of the challenge here:

“In the representations made to us there was recognition of a need for a cultural change in our society with regard to the fear and associated with being labelled a ‘tout’. Although there is much anecdotal evidence about the extent of racketeering and extortion, these criminal activities are insufficiently reported to the police. Even more serious crimes often go unreported. Without information and evidence, the police and the wider justice system are not able to deliver successful outcomes or build a safer community. Respect for the rule of law implies an individual responsibility to report criminality and to support the justice system to tackle it.”

Confidence in the rule of law is fundamental to a working democracy and there is much work to do to educate, inform and build trust.

In addition alienated young men in areas of multiple deprivation can come to see involvement in criminal gangs as a rite of passage, and a career path. This is not unique to Northern Ireland – it is a global issue. Yet in Northern Ireland it can be more potent because this kind of activity can acquire a spurious ideological glamour.

Long term it will be vital to nurture a shared culture of lawfulness. The Third Sector will have an important role to play in this by helping those young people vulnerable to paramilitaries to overcome that influence.

It will also involve public awareness campaigns to help people understand the damage that paramilitaries do within communities.


Building confidence in the justice system

Linked to that is the imperative to build confidence in the justice system. This has two primary aspects: the first is to improve trust between the police and communities, the second is to speed up the system itself by eliminating unnecessary delays in the courts and ensuring that sentencing is appropriate.

The panel puts it like this: “Although not necessarily reflective of society as a whole, we have been struck by the lack of confidence in the criminal justice system in some communities who regard it as being ineffective in tackling criminality linked to members of groups and in responding to local concerns, such as anti-social behaviour.

“Disillusionment with the slow pace of the justice system or seemingly lenient sentences can mean that people are less likely to cooperate with the justice system, with some people still turning to paramilitaries for more immediate redress. Furthermore, the perception that some of those involved in organised crime can evade justice or receive only lenient sentences further erodes respect for the justice system.”


Strategies and Powers to tackle criminal activity

The new task force is part of this strand of activity which will seek to establish that nobody is above the law, challenging the perception that some paramilitary leaders are untouchable, another factor in eroding confidence in the criminal justice system.


Building capacity to support transition

Leaving a paramilitary organisation is not as simple as deciding not to renew a subscription at the local gym. The panel reported: “Once they are involved, it can then be difficult for a young person to leave the group, even if they no longer wish to remain. They may feel they have no way out of the situation, particularly as it would appear that some paramilitary groups insist on a substantial sum of money as an exit fee. Such sums are likely to be beyond the means of most young people.”

It lays out conditions whereby groups could be deemed to have transformed out of paramilitarism and how they then might be able to apply to be removed from Schedule 2 of the Terrorism Act. The Red Hand Commando appears to be attempting to go down this course.

The panel cites best practice in bringing conflicts to an end: Disarmament, Disbandment and Reintegration. It identifies formidable barriers to this that also need to be addressed under the action plan: “We have heard that many current and former members of paramilitary groups want to put their past behind them and make a positive contribution to their community and the economy. A number of individuals have successfully made this transition. Others have encountered obstacles in a number of areas, including employment, education, training, and the impact of past convictions. There is also evidence that these obstacles are faced by some relatives of ex-prisoners.

“It is not just the individual who is excluded as a result of their convictions. If a family member, such as a child or grandchild, is required to undergo an extensive background check for employment or other purposes, the background of the parent or grandparent can be taken into account. We have found instances where both children and grandchildren were excluded.”

This critical part of the action plan is ultimately twofold: it will help people to transition out of paramilitary organisations and also help communities to stand up to them. We can expect specific interventions in those areas which are most afflicted by paramilitaries.

The task is immense and far-reaching and the plan to deal with it comprehensive.

Unfortunately it does not end there. As the panel points out: “In some particularly disadvantaged communities, the ‘peace dividend’ has not been perceived to yield the expected benefits and a situation of continuing insecurity and poverty has generated frustrations and resentment. In post-conflict societies, preventing a reoccurrence of violence is sometimes described as ‘negative peace’, whereas an approach that addresses issues of prosperity and social and economic stability enables a more sustainable ‘positive peace’. A comprehensive cross-departmental approach to communities in transition is needed to tackle both these aspects of peace building.”

This, of course has been an enduring tragedy of the unfolding peace process- the fact that in social, economic and health terms those who suffered most during the conflict are no better off today. To get real traction on that would require a fully working Executive dedicated to economic regeneration and a Westminster government that recognises and is prepared to help fund such a “positive peace.”


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