Paramilitaries and the pandemic

20 Nov 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 20 Nov 2020

Pic: Pixabay

Here’s a question you thought no-one would ever ask. What impact has the pandemic had on paramilitaries?

Yet it is one which the third annual report of the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) attempts to grapple with. It is important for two reasons. It makes it hard to analyse progress in tackling paramilitarism when for much of the year restrictions on movement have affected members of armed groups as much as the rest of us. And the economic repercussions of Covid-19 are likely to be severe for those communities most blighted by paramilitaries.

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

 It reported back  with 43 recommendations and the Executive produced an action plan to enact them and made the necessary budgetary provisions, £50 million over five years, a period which the Executive has agreed in principle to extend to 2024.

The IRC was set up to monitor progress and reports annually.

Lockdown saw a reduction in recorded crime which spanned Spring and early Summer rendering year-on-year statistical analysis meaningless not just for this year but next as well.

So therefore the IRC is not in a position to comment on the impact that the various actions it has recommended and is confined to charting progress on implementing them.

However there are no surprises whatsoever in its conclusion: “Regrettably, we have to report that paramilitarism remains a reality of Northern Ireland life in 2020. We regard its continuation as unacceptable.”

The IRC adopts a twin track approach to tackling paramilitarism – a robust security response, coupled with actions to alleviate the deep-seated socio-economic problems that afflict the areas where paramilitarism is most prevalent.

However the elephant in the room is that £50 million is nowhere near enough to tackle such widespread deprivation. This is not to belittle the many excellent programmes that have been launched under its banner. It is stating the obvious.

The IRC itself recognises this. Last year’s report expresses “significant concern that the programme is not sufficiently aligned with the scale of educational under-attainment, unemployment, poor mental health, addiction and poverty.”

This year all these challenges are likely to be exacerbated by the economic fall-out from the pandemic, which is widely predicted to cause a significant rise in unemployment, with those in the most deprived areas most vulnerable. Some observers believe we could witness levels of joblessness not seen since the 1980s.

The kind of investment the level of intervention would require to counter this is beyond what the Northern Ireland government can afford, never mind the IRC-inspired programme. It would require the UK government to step in with funds.

The IRC believes this is possible  and wants to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer channel investment funds post-pandemic to address these issues in those communities where paramilitarism exists.

The report states: “ We argue these constitute a ‘special case’ in terms of any post-Covid plan and future investment in Northern Ireland to address inequality, such as the UK Government’s planned Shared Prosperity Fund. We urge the Executive to ensure that resources are prioritised to meet these needs.”

And further: “the commentary around the investment plans of the Chancellor of the Exchequer special mention has been made of those regions in the UK that were already suffering from particular disadvantage even before the pandemic. It is accepted that those areas will require a bespoke focus above and beyond any general post-Covid lift. Our argument is that this rationale deserves to be extended also in Northern Ireland to those communities beset by paramilitarism.”

Full marks to the IRC for such a bold bid.

However a word of caution is required. The Shared Prosperity Fund does not represent new money. It is intended as a post-Brexit replacement for structural funding currently provided by the European Union.

It  has been used for boosting several aspects of economic development, including support for businesses, employment and agriculture, and is administered by the different nations of the UK. Currently Northern Ireland receives around £10 million per annum from this funding.

According to the UK government the new fund will “help deliver sustainable, inclusive growth based on our modern industrial strategy.”

Details of the new fund were expected in July, but postponed because of the pandemic and a few weeks before the European funding comes to an end we have not had an announcement of how it will be replaced.

In theory because the UK is a net contributor to the EU it is possible for the new fund to fully replace European funding. That’s unlikely – Brexit itself will mean there’s less money to go around, and former PM Theresa May has already pledged some of it for the NHS.

In addition more English regions would now qualify for additional resources under the European rules and will be demanding more support now.

The challenge for the Executive and other devolved administrations therefore will be to hold on to the existing pot, rather than to get more. We still don’t know how the fund will work, what the criteria will be for grants, and what size it will be and so demanding funds from it is premature.

Furthermore whilst both the Scottish and Welsh governments have given their views on how it should work, there was no input from Northern Ireland because we had no government when it went out for consultation.

Similarly we should not be building too many hopes round the Chancellor. Much has changed since Boris Johnson swept to power last year with its promise of “levelling up” the economy.

As a consequence the UK government has yet to publish any details of its spending plans in order to deliver on manifesto commitments to level up, work towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions, fix social care and ramp up public investment.

It had delayed them until last month because of Brexit, but the spending review has been delayed once more because of all the uncertainties around Covid-19. This month’s Budget has also been cancelled.

And in cold, hard political terms the reason why levelling up has become such a big issue for the Conservative Party  is not because of the desperate circumstances in parts of Northern Ireland, but in order to consolidate its gains in struggling towns in England’s north and midlands.

Rishi Sunak is a fiscal conservative.  His munificence will be tempered by the extent of the economic devastation by the time the spending review is finally carried out.

The IRC raises an important argument and a strong case. But it will be interesting to see what they have to say about it next year – and what will have happened in these vulnerable communities in between now and then.


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