Ending paramilitarism: why words matter

15 Nov 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 15 Nov 2019

Pic Keith Ruffles, Wiki Commons

One of the most important challenges we face in Northern Ireland is bringing paramilitarism to an end.

Last week Scope analysed the Independent Reporting Commission’s latest report on progress to date. This week those running the Tackling Paramilitarism programme held their second annual conference which had a special focus on what is being done to help young people who are vulnerable to paramilitary influence.

There is much good work going on to make progress on the 43 commitments made by government.  

However if this task is to succeed the language that we use will be every bit as important as the actions that we take.

Words are powerful – and often our choice of them has unintended consequences which undermine what we are trying to achieve.

When we come to ending paramilitarism we enter a linguistic minefield. One important aspect of the programme is to foster a “culture of lawfulness”. Yet the IRC’s own report reveals that communities find this phrase both patronising and stigmatising when applied to them.

It seems an innocuous term but it inevitably causes offence if it is taken to apply to entire communities. It also could be interpreted to imply that being a good citizen is about compliance, when citizenship is actually about rights as well as responsibilities, a contract between people and the state in which both parties have a role to play.

This would never have been what the three person panel meant when they made their recommendations but it is a great example of how words can undermine good intentions.

That is just one example. The lexicon of the tackling Paramilitary programme is littered with linguistic dilemmas. Some because terminology is not clearly defined, others which stem from the obvious tensions between the use of language designed to express condemnation and that to engage with communities and promote “transitioning” (itself a strange choice of word).

Let’s take the word paramilitary for a start. The ambition of the programme is to end paramilitary activity. The IRC report states that a majority of members of paramilitary organisations are not active, it calls them dormant. Within the various organisations there are members who wish to move towards a peaceful, democratic society and others, a smaller number, who use paramilitarism as a cloak for criminality.

This may explain why some on the ground are starting to talk in terms of “good” and “bad” paramilitaries – a distinction many would not be prepared to acknowledge.

It also raises the question of if and when we stop using the term paramilitaries and replace it with the phrase organised crime gang. This has all sorts of potential implications, most of which are difficult.

The Collins English dictionary defines paramilitary as “denoting or relating to a force with military structure conducting armed operations against a ruling or occupying power.” It defines organised crime as “crime committed by organisations that exist for and profit by criminal activity.”

Many of the activities currently engaged in by paramilitary groups seem to fit more in the latter than the former category. That’s before we consider how to categorise members of paramilitary groups who have associations with organised criminal gangs.

Paramilitaries engage in crime to fund political violence, whilst criminal gangs do so for profit. Yet today many paramilitary groups appear to have morphed into a hybrid, presumably using the proceeds of crime to buy weapons, but also to enrich individuals. Therefore it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two groups.  

Organised crime is rife across the UK and Ireland and increasing in Northern Ireland. In that context ending paramilitarism, if that means abandoning political violence, marks the end of one process but will just mark a new chapter in dealing with armed gangs.

Interesting in this context is that the full name of the programme is: “Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime.” In the IRC report it is referred to as the “Tackling Paramilitary Programme”. This is snappier but it’s not pedantic to point out the difference.  

Another area is how we describe attacks on individuals carried out by paramilitary groups. In recent years what people used to call “punishment beatings” have been renamed “paramilitary-style attacks”. This is the term used by the IRC. But this also causes concern in some circles. Categorising a serious assault a “paramilitary-style attack” may suggest to some people that the victim has done something wrong.  This school of thought argues that statements from the police and others should describe rather than label the assault.

Equally there is the increasingly common characterisation of these kind of incidents as “child abuse”. Whilst this is justifiable it does not necessarily resonate with people on the ground.

The closer you look the more you find.

The media sometimes refers to paramilitary leaders using militaristic titles like brigadier and quarter-master. Is this just an accurate rendering of their status within an organisation or does it imply some form of legitimacy on them?

Authorities talk of paramilitaries exerting “coercive control” over communities. This is a legal term which: “involves an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse by a perpetrator that is used to harm, punish or frighten their victim.” In 2015 it was made an offence in relation to domestic abuse. In terms of how paramilitaries operate within communities it fits the bill. But it is not a phrase in day-to-day use. Do people on the ground relate to it, or is there a more effective way of characterising how these groups seek to control entire areas?

Then there is the, often loose, use of the term “community representative” and or “gatekeeper” sometimes as a euphemism for people associated with paramilitary groups who claim to speak for a particular area.

The problem with all this is that it raises questions to which we currently have no definitive answers.

To what extent, for example, does using condemnatory language help to end paramilitarism, what works and what does not? Has our language in the past exacerbated or helped end violence?

What sort of language do the communities we most want to help use in relation to paramilitarism? What language would they most like us to use? What messages are most effective to help empower people? What do they not relate to? What sort of language has unforeseen negative effects?

Similar questions need to be asked about the language we need to use to encourage more paramilitaries to transition away from their groups and for the groups themselves to cease activities.

The problem is that we just don’t know. Everyone has very strong views about the language we should use in relation to paramilitaries. Few are afraid to express them. It’s just that we don’t really understand their impact and what works best to achieve a common goal.

Even phrases we all believe we understand like “paramilitary activity” become problematic on closer examination which will make it less clear than we might think to declare such activities have ceased.  

The time is long overdue for serious research on what to say and how to say it to help bring paramilitarism to an end and to define the words and phrases we use with greater clarity.



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