Troubles with paramilitaries is a strategic legacy of the peace process itself

Took me a while to get around to this, but Stephen Dempster’s Spotlight documentary on paramilitarism in North Down is well worth watching. The scale of the activism there is way below what we associate with Belfast or parts of Mid Ulster.

It’s a reprise of a story Chris first picked up on for Slugger back in November. Several things come out of it. One is Jonathan Powell’s frank admission (here and here) that is remnant paramilitary control is something the Blair administration left behind.

The problem for any outsider looking in on this and other little local difficulties is how to see through the many hidden conflicting agendas grinding on beneath the surface.

On the face of it, it’s a plain old territory grabbing adventure: this time, ostensibly, it’s a case of paramilitary interests coming into conflict with a genuine, unsalaried branch of civil society in Clandeboye village.

But on a political level, whilst some of the peace process interventions may be well intentioned, those efforts can sometimes amount to, as Cllr John Barry of the Greens puts it, “buying public order at a tremendous moral and ethical cost”.

Whilst many of the initiatives run by organisations like Charter NI have real educational and social value, at the lower end of the scale, around bonfires in this case the rule of law being run roughshod over.

In addition councillors, council officials and statutory agencies find themselves bound into relationships that associate them in the local mind with paramilitary groups (and offending behaviours) against the interests of ordinary citizens.

Of course, the cops get it in the neck. That will continue whilst there’s an absence of political will and vision to deal with the legacy problem.

One of the abiding features of the last nine years has been the absence of any substantial plus sum game aimed at lengthening the shadow of the future. Efforts at managing legacy issues are often piecemeal, unstrategic and highly partial.

Towards the end of a paper I presented to the Community Relations Council last October (and just before this trouble really kicked into the public domain with the physical attack on Aaron McMahon), suggesting that we are not just facing a simple matter of public order.

This is a strategic legacy of the peace process itself.

In order to break out of it, politicians must ask themselves how committed they are to renewal. Do they wish to fight old battles? Or new ones? Do they prefer the risks of a long peace? Or the certainty of continuing long war politics?

You can now pick up Paramilitary Gatekeeping and Economic Impairment for a tiny fee (99¢) from Scribd.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Zig70

    In the absence of political morals or direction, surely the police still have the ability to make their own moral judgement?

  • tmitch57

    Three paramilitary parties emerged out of The Troubles to contest elections in the 1990s. The smallest and weakest of these three, the UDP, has disappeared and the other loyalist party, the PUP, is basically irrelevant at the European, Westminster and Assembly levels and not very formidable at the local level. The remaining paramilitary party, Sinn Fein, has been very successful electorally becoming the dominant party within Northern nationalism and has managed to marginalize the dissident republicans politically. But not only do the loyalists and the dissident republicans continue to engage in organized criminal activities, but so do former Republican paramilitaries who remain loyal to Sinn Fein politically. Anyone who wants to press for legal accountability by all is deemed an enemy of the peace process. There seems to be more appetite for confronting these criminals from Dublin than there is from London, probably because Dublin suffers the direct effects of their actions. When the body count in Belfast, Bangor and elsewhere rises there will be eventually more pressure to act against all paramilitaries. This will then be the key test for Sinn Fein’s leadership.

  • aquifer

    Peter Robinson of the DUP strutted with loyalist paramilitaries in the Ulster hall, and the UVF added muscle to the DUP UUP flegs gambit in East Belfast. The DUP allegiance to democracy and non-violence is also provisional.

    When I see UK paratroops facing down the rag tag drug dealers and extortionists, and ripping down the alphabet soup adverts for terror from the lampposts, I will know Gov.UK are serious about suppressing terrorism.