Responses to the new Loyalist Community Council came in quickly from both the SDLP and Sinn Fein. There is a general consistency between both parties as they initially welcomed the approach towards democracy and peace but sceptical about some of the aims.
First up the SDLP’s Claire Hanna (bits in bold added by me to emphasis areas of concern);
Any genuine attempt to move paramilitary gangs away from violence is to be cautiously welcomed but there is something worrying about formalising and co-opting these organisations in order to have them leave the stage. The success of this new Loyalist Community Council will only be measured by tangible evidence that loyalist paramilitaries have disappeared. Certainly, we should be getting the good behaviour up-front before the grant applications start to be written.
“There are a number of problems with this new body, not least that the council will include members from each the UDA, the UVF and the Red Hand Commando which are all proscribed organisations that are still active in racketeering, intimidation and violence across Northern Ireland. There is also a major credibility and coherence gap in light of the statement just last week from the South Belfast UPRG that their UDA bedfellows would be going nowhere”
In a statement today, loyalist paramilitaries have stated that they hope this new body will ‘become a vehicle for attracting meaningful funding and initiatives to assist loyalist communities throughout Northern Ireland’. Many, many millions have already been spent in Peace funding to get rid of these of paramilitary organisations and to rebuild republican and loyalist communities destroyed by the Troubles and paramilitaries. Many people will be asking how much and how often we have to pay these people to go away especially as a majority of ex-prisoners have now been out far longer than they were in jail.
Decades on from the ceasefire, the message to young men in loyalist communities is still being given that whether through extortion or a designated conflict transformation job, being a paramilitary is an acceptable way to make your living. Many would feel that the money would be better spent on early years intervention, tackling educational underachievement and otherwise giving vulnerable young people the skills and confidence to resist the lure of paramilitaries.
Then we have Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly
In recent months alone unionist paramilitary groups have murdered Brian McIlhagga in Ballymoney and are involved in on-going drug dealing and extortion.
The continuing criminality of loyalist paramilitary groups remains a scourge in loyalist working-class areas.
So, while I welcome today’s initiative, I do have some reservations.
The demand for an end to historic prosecutions must be rejected as it flies in the face of the Stormont House Agreement which was about enabling families the opportunity to have maximum disclosure of the truth and access to justice. A large number of loyalist killings were carried out with the support and active involvement of British state forces and have never been properly investigated.
Secondly, the only basis for involvement in political negotiations is through the democratic process of elections. However engagement with loyalists to move them away from violence and criminality is something I would encourage. And we also need to be conscious of the sense of abandonment felt in loyalist communities and of the need to address loyalist disengagement from the political process.
All paramilitary groups – including so called republican ones – need to embrace our peace and political processes and develop their own political projects through solely peaceful and democratic means.
This raises the issue of the demobilisation of such groups, an issue which requires further consideration and discussion.
But funding proposals aimed at tackling deprivation and disadvantage must be based on proven objective need.