The trouble with paramilitaries

8 Nov 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 8 Nov 2019

Pic Asterion, Wiki Commons

The Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) has just published its second report on progress to end paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

It is an important document not least because of how clearly it spells out the twin track approach necessary to tackle the challenge. On the one hand there is a need for an effective security response. On the other we have to tackle the deep seated and hitherto intractable socio-economic problems that afflict those areas over which paramilitaries have their strongest influence.  

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 before its collapse the last Executive produced an action plan to enact them and made the necessary budgetary provisions, £50 million over five years.

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

The most disturbing findings of the latest report are those which show just how much progress is being impeded by the lack of government. Civil servants are operating at the absolute limit of the powers they can exercise. Important policy decisions need to be made by democratically elected politicians – and there is a growing list of measures that will require legislation.

For example the National Crime Agency is beginning to seize the assets of those engaged in paramilitary-related crime. The IRC wants to see these powers increased. This could be achieved by setting up a specific local agency for the civil recovery of proceeds of crime. It also wants  Unexplained Wealth Orders extended to Northern Ireland. The panel say  they are aware of cases where criteria for this would have been met here had the power existed.

Both these measures would need legislation.

And that’s only the beginning. The IRC wants legislation toughened on criminal gangs along the lines of recent measures in Scotland and reform of the law around committal proceedings in order to speed up the justice system.

In the case of committals the report states that former Secretary of State Karen Bradley was approached about tabling the necessary legislation  but she declined on the grounds that demands imposed on Parliament’s time by Brexit made this impossible. The report demands that the next Secretary of State should: “give the  matter the priority it deserves.”

Time and again within the report we read about Bills being prepared or worked upon which cannot be enacted.

One especially sensitive issue, which can only be resolved by democratically elected politicians, is the question of whether we should have some form of dedicated transition process for groups which move away from violence, which might ultimately lead to their deproscription.

Another one involves developing new protocols around PSNI and other public bodies engaging with representatives of paramilitary groups.

There’s a clear need to help ex-paramilitaries to return to normal life. Legislation to make it easier for ex-paramilitaries to get work and to adopt children has been prepared but again this needs to await a new executive and assembly.

There is a debate about the extent to which, if any, the political vacuum is encouraging paramilitaries. Perhaps the better question is the extent to which it is hampering efforts to combat armed groups. And the answer to that is unequivocal.

Paramilitary activity is most prevalent in areas of socio-economic deprivation. This raises one of the most important, unresolved issues of all.

The 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.”

It therefore calls on government to adopt a “whole system” approach to the issue, stating the ending paramilitarism should be a specific outcome in the Programme for Government (another step that requires an Executive and Assembly).

However this in itself leads to a fundamental problem which neither the IRC, the programme team, or any functioning Northern Ireland can possibly hope to resolve without further help.

Of course, £50 million for a five year programme is a significant sum of money. But it goes nowhere near the sorts of funds that would be required to turn around the severity of the problems it cites.

If we accept that these factors contribute to paramilitarism, and few observers would dissent from that, it naturally follows that the scape of investment needs to match the scale of deprivation.

There are still far too many communities who have not received any peace dividend and for whom economic conditions are every bit as harsh today as they were during the conflict.

Yet tackling this would involve a transformation of UK government policy – and sustained support for the long term. This takes us way beyond Fresh Start and the work of the programme team into the necessity of addressing the many inequalities that affect multiple communities across the UK.

The IRC does not explicitly state this but many will come to that conclusion. It does, however, emphasise the need to move away from funding one-off short term projects and towards a whole-system approach to deal with long-term, complex and interlinked problems.

It is particularly attracted to models such as the Glasgow Violence Reduction Unit, which uses a “public health” approach to criminality at the heart of which is the notion that violence is preventable and not inevitable.

And there is criticism of some of the work currently underway. It believes, for example, that steps taken to date to tackle educational under-achievement lack “energy and ambition” pointing out the many factors that influence the problem.

One of the most important means of ending paramilitarism is to move beyond a whole government to a whole of society approach. To this end the IRC wants to see a broad public debate on the matter.

This will necessitate both courage and leadership. It will also inevitably lead to difficulties.

For example the report states that although there are thousands associated with paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland only a small number are involved in criminal activity. Many do want to transition away, but there are others who use paramilitary associations as a “cloak for crime”. The existence of this hard core feeds into the narrative that there are people taking money of the state and other funders who are community workers by day, and paramilitaries by night.

Given that the programme’s work requires widespread public confidence if it is to succeed, dealing with those actions that involve transitioning of both individuals and groups is especially fraught and sensitive.

Whether or not we get a return to government it will require a level of maturity from politicians of all parties that has not always been evident to date.



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