Can we finally wind up the paramilitaries by consent? The panel report has been delivered

Striking a balance between recognising where local power lies and the aim of bringing paramilitarism to an end is the fiendishly tricky approach of the report to the two governments and the Executive of the three- person panel headed by John Alderdice. In the jargon the strategy is about Demilitarisation, Disbandment and Integration (DDR).

The panel set up under Fresh Start was asked  to produce a one-off report. It wasn’t  a standing body like the International Monitoring Commission (IMC), of which Alderdice was a member, and which ran from 2004 to 2011. Many people thought in retrospect that the IMC provided a safety valve that  was wound up too early.

This view was reinforced when the Davison –McGuigan  feud killings last year were taken as proof that the IRA still existed.  This  prompted the DUP’s “in-out- in” exercise of resigning then rejoining the Executive at short intervals and greatly contributed to the deadlock  in the Executive which had  begun earlier in 2015 over Sinn Fein’s refusal to accept funding cuts from HM Treasury.

The report would probably never have been commissioned had it not been for this sequence of events. The context therefore is highly political. Like the OTRs controversy, the continued existence of paramilitary structures was, in Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase,  a “known known,”  but a partly suppressed one.  When it broke surface, it produced something more than a kerfuffle, but less than a crisis.

The response to  the report from the Executive parties will therefore test its cohesion and resolve. Martin McGuinness’s reaction to the panel’s approach to the task was to that extent encouraging. Arlene Foster can hardly lag behind. The standing body will be ano  Independent Reporting Commission which will report annually on progress towards ending continuing paramilitary activity  – or more frequently if desirable –  and on the measures  taken by the three administrations. The FM and dFM will  jointly nominate two of the four Commissioners. The other two are to be nominated by the UK Government and the Government of Ireland.

Just as  importantly -and maybe more so-the carrot and stick approach will test the influence of the two leading parties in the streets. The DUP’s limitations were exposed in the “flegs” riots. There are plenty of dissidents itching to exploit any opportunity  to challenge the influence of the mainstream republican movement after nearly  20 years’ membership of the local establishment.

The Irish News has the best summary of the panel report. It recommends a new decommissioning process.  It may be summed up as switching emphasis from recognising paramilitaries  to tackling criminality more vigorously, and combining this with  incentives to lead normal lives.  There was no engagement with dissident republicans.

Adds later

A whole battery of  incentives is suggested  to reintegrate ( or perhaps integrate?)  convicted former warriors into normal society, such as removing legal bars to public sector recruitment and restrictions on eligibility for bank credit and insurance; and lifting US visa restrictions ( sounds tricky that one, post 9/11). Those are among the carrots (“supporting transition”).  The sticks (“promoting lawfulness”) are a tougher law and order approach including  support for a bigger police presence and appeals against too lenient sentences. The  stick of the eventual withdrawal of pragmatic recognition of paramilitary  groups as local centres of power looks like being accompanied – one day, some day? –  by the carrot of removing their illegal status.

 Recommendation C3. The UK and Irish Governments should review the legislation relating to paramilitary groups (e.g. the Terrorism Act 2000) to ensure that it remains in step with the transitioning status of groups in Northern Ireland.

This recommendation (explained more fully earlier in the report) is  extremely interesting. It refers to the Terrorism Act 2000 which lists the familiar scheduled offences tried under “national security,” potentially in non-jury courts. Treating erstwhile scheduled (terrorist) offences as ordinary crimes removes them from the ambit of national security.

Part 2 of the Act deals with proscription. If the IRA, UDA and UVF are organisations which have handed in all their weapons and are shown not to take part in criminal activities, should they continue to be banned? Could deproscription  ( lifting the bans on the organisations)  become part of a DDR strategy?

They hasten to add that nothing should be done in haste. The approach of  St Augustine  to chastity is adopted on  ending state  relations with paramilitary groups “ but not yet, Oh Lord.” At the time of writing reaction has been as  muted. No responses have come yet from either government nor the Executive.  The absence of knee jerk is welcome.

Extract from the Irish News report

  Recommendations include the phasing out of the separated regime for paramilitary prisoners in Maghaberry, with the panel saying it encourages continuing paramilitary structures.

“Although the time is not yet right for an end to separation, as we move to a more normal and peaceful society the ultimate aim must be to secure the end of a separated regime for paramilitary prisoners, acknowledging that this may be a longer term goal”.

They suggest that this should be done alongside an increased education and training program to help prisoners reintegrate into society following their release.

Controversially they also recommend that the two governments should consider a further period of decommissioning to allow weapons retained or acquired since decommissioning to be disposed of.

“It is our view that the UK and Irish Governments should consider a mechanism being put in place for a limited time to deal with any requests for future decommissioning of residual weapons or materiel”, the report states.

However, the most significant recommendation is the liaising at community level between paramilitary figures, both loyalist and republican, and police during marches or periods of public disorder.

Police at community level often negotiate with people believed to have influence during contentious situations, nominated negotiators are often those who hold ‘rank’ within paramilitary groups.

While the panel noted there may be some ‘tactical’ reasons for this type of dialogue “in a lawful democratic society this engagement by the state with members of illegal organisations cannot become a permanent norm”.

“We believe that Government departments and the PSNI should plan for how their strategic approach to managing contentious issues in communities will evolve.

“We recognise that limited tactical dialogue with representatives of paramilitary groups has been an important and effective means of keeping the peace in some communities.

“We also recognise that this cannot change at once. However, in a lawful democratic society this engagement by the state with members of illegal organisations cannot become a permanent norm as, ultimately, it undermines the development of a culture of lawfulness.

“It is important that those who do business with Government and the PSNI should be consistent positive examples to their communities.

“We recommend that the Executive and the PSNI, in conjunction with the Policing Board, should review their protocols for engaging with representatives of paramilitary groups.

“This change in approach should also apply to other public and community bodies and public representatives.”

A police clampdown on ongoing paramilitary activity, including a change in the language used to describe organisations has also been recommended in the report.

“Referring to ‘paramilitary activity’ gives the misleading impression that the criminal activity referred to is in some way part of a concerted militaristic campaign or in pursuit of political objectives.

“We believe, with the exception of any ongoing terrorist activity, the focus should now be on criminality,” the report stated.

Full version in the Executive’s website.