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.



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  • chrisjones2

    “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.”

    ….but in some cases it is, isnt it? Pretending otherwise will not work

  • Ciaran O’Connor

    It was sickening listening to the likes of Jim Wilson on Radio Northern Ireland this morning on the Nolan show. A gentleman rang in and rightly asked Wilson to evidence his support as a self-declared representative of the people, any people, loyalist people. He was obviously unable to do so, since he hasn’t a single vote to his name. A self-elected spokesman.

    For me its very simple: Paramilitaries, 20 years after a peace agreement, should not exist. The major problems are in loyalist communities, where the same old alphabet soup of organisations UVF/UDA/UFF/RHC etc… never made any attempts to fade-to-black and still dominate those areas to this day. Can anyone name a working class loyalist area in Northern Ireland which does not have one of those organisations running the show in that community? Exacerbating this problem are Unionist politicians and the police.

    When you have DUP MLAs endorsing paramilitaries left, right and centre, like so…
    Then little wonder do they not only continue to exist but thrive and increase their grip on the communities that they lord over. The DUP and UUP have always had these people on the end of a chain, ready to whip them up into a frenzy when they want people on the streets for the latest thing they are outraged at, e.g. the fleg protests. Loyalists paramilitaries are the volume control of Unionism. “We’re really not happy. Get on the blower to the lads in East Belfast; lets get some balaclava’s on the streets”.

    The police and British intelligence services are in complete control of loyalist paramilitaries. They have them wholly infiltrated and as far as the evidence I have seen they always have had them in their control. They ran them as proxy groups. Evidence? The Stevens inquiry arrested 210 paramilitaries of which they found that 207 were agents or informers! 207 out of 210. The police and the ‘security services’ are happy to run these creeps to use them as a lever to control violence and unrest to what are perceived to be ‘acceptable levels’. The police don’t want to give them up, so they certainly won’t take them on. These paramilitary groups were and continue to be their proxy groups, at their behest and within their control. If anyone gets too big for their boots? Well they get knocked-off or some new evidence emerges of their connection to a historical case.

    Unless and until Unionist politicians, the police and the British intelligence services give these guys up, nothing is going to change. I can not see the difference in loyalist areas and the influence of the usual suspects prior to the peace process and the situation today. For me there is absolutely no change whatsoever. I don’t think the same situation pervades in nationalist areas. Yes there are dissidents but they just don’t have the same grip.

    I wish all of them would just bugger-off and get off peoples backs. They contribute nothing. At this point you can only describe them as leeches.

  • Reader

    Ciaran O’Connor: When you have DUP MLAs endorsing paramilitaries left, right and centre, like so…
    The solution to this is fairly straightforward. Extend the provisions of the SPAD bill so that people convicted of serious offences cannot be board members on charities.
    I’m sure Jim Allister will take the lead on this one. Could he count on your support?

  • submariner

    Is this the same Jim Allister that stood shoulder to shoulder with the UVF commander Winkie Irvine at Twaddell

  • Reader

    I’m guessing you’re right. This is the chance to put him on the spot. SPADs were easy – No DUP ex-cons were in the frame. But ex-con Loyalist charity board members would challenge both Jim and maybe the DUP. If SF have clean hands on this one it looks like a win in the Assembly. In fact, if there is still a lawyer or two left in Tiocfadh Armani you may not even need Jim’s help to frame the legislation.
    I just can’t see a downside to this one. Can you?

  • Ernekid

    How do they differentiate between the activities of ‘paramilitaries’ and the thuggery of the likes of feuding Hutch gangs down in Dublin and why should they treat them any differently?

  • Nevin

    “1.4 We have not been asked to carry out an assessment of the paramilitary groups.”

    How convenient. Such reports usually involve the application of several coats of white-wash.

  • Ciaran O’Connor

    What you are suggesting is small beer. These people didn’t sit on quangos before the ceasefires or indeed did they have access to public funds in terms of a fat cheque every month. Yet, they still ran their communities through the same intimidatory methods they operate to this day. Unionist politicians must distance themselves from these people permanently. The police and intelligence people should begin to operate on the basis that these people are criminals who need to be imprisoned and not view them as continuing intelligence assets in a 20 year defunct war.

    I’m 100% sincere when I say I want them all gone, regardless of their motivations. I’ll restate it, they should ALL bugger-off. If they won’t then throw all the agencies of the state at them to end their criminal ways.

  • Ciaran O’Connor

    Actually listening to the bloke on the radio today, it was my interpretation that he desperately wanted to say that the PSNI’s assessment, that was helpful to detractors of the peace process, was guff. He stated and overstated that he wasn’t running against the PSNI’s position at that time and by doing so he was holding a placard saying “It was all b***s”. All of which most of us knew anyway, even you probably, if you are honest with yourself.

  • Nevin

    I didn’t listen to any bloke on the radio, Ciaran, so can’t comment.

  • Ciaran O’Connor

    It was one of ‘the blokes’, John McBurney, that co-authored the (independent) report.

    Always the helpful soul, knock yourself out.

    For me its what he DOESN’T say and the WAY he says what he does say that is telling. He won’t touch the PSNI’s appraisal with a barge-pole nor indeed does he think the PSNIs approach to these people (paras) is tolerable anymore.

  • Nevin

    Ciaran, the police services in the various jurisdictions across these two islands may well have to operate within certain constraints applied by the respective governments; in the NI context that might or might not be the UK operating independently of Ireland.

    The governments may well seek to offer a measure of protection to the ‘good’ loyalist and republican paramilitaries, elected or otherwise. After all, governments are likely to put the protection of key institutions ahead of the pleas of victims.

    PS. Thanks for the link.

  • murdockp

    A date has to be set down let’s call it 31 December 2016. Any one convicted before this date is treated as a paramilitary prisoner and the benefits this brings. Any one convicted after this date is guilty of terrorism offences is treated as the common criminal the are locked up with other criminals and no privileges.

    The parties should all sign up to this. The preparatory of violence can’t say they were doing warned.

  • aquifer

    Because the paramilitaries are a political weapon ready to be used to oppress the civilian population. If the government does not suppress them it is licensing them, and in fact subsidising them, with their cut of government funded building and repair contracts and the loss of taxes on fags and DVDs.

  • aquifer

    Bleeding protestant areas dry. When I hear the government cherrypicker taking down the threatening paramilitary crap from the town at 4 in the morning I will know they might be getting serious. They don’t have to kick their doors in and use the stun grenades, just remove the unhealthy advertising for young people like they did from fag packets.

  • Zig70

    Something tells me there isn’t the political will on either side and little will come of it. It stinks of buying a quite life for the folks on the hill.

  • Roy Reilly-Robertson

    A very good idea and very simple to do. But a real threat to the pretend atmosphere of Loyalist Paramilitaries are not a problem which the apologists for them engender.

  • Nevin

    Sam McBride draws attention to the elephant in the room and records a somewhat bizarre response from John McBurney:

    Group unable to meet with the PIRA leadership

    John McBurney has defended the fact that the Provisional IRA is mentioned just once in the report – despite the fact that it was allegations of IRA involvement in murder which led to the report being commissioned.

    “In circumstances where the Provisional IRA claimed to have gone away and not to be coming back, it shouldn’t be surprising that meetings could not be organised with leadership of a continuing PIRA movement.”

    He added: “The [October] paramilitary assessment report has indicated the extent of what remains of the PIRA entity. Senior former mainstream republicans with a militaristic background indicated to us that any continued existence of a Provisional Army Council would be damaging and counter productive to moving forward with a wholly peaceful and political endeavour.

    “That seems to be a rational position and clearly if a view was formed that the PIRA had effectively disbanded, it is not likely that anyone from that direction and formerly involved would challenge that assertion. That can of course be put to the test.”

  • Croiteir

    Correct, and the fact that SF and the SDLP didn’t amend the Spad Bill when it was proposed at the start shows how unimaginative and useless they are.

  • Nimn

    Thank you. Your post nailed the core issues which are never discussed by the DUP or UUP.
    The fact is that the OO was infiltrated and band culture to a large extent taken over by paramilitaries in Belfast and elsewhere in the 80s and 90s. Under pressure, it is to these groups that support is sought for flags protests, bonfires and the like all under the name of culture. Loyalist paramilitaries know that the OO the DUP and the UUP need them for the writ to run. The fact is there are no votes in facing them down.
    SF have an equal problem in that whatever they say they will still come across as arch hypocrites who, in their inability to deny PIRA’s serial human rights abuses over the years, give credence to the same methods of barbarism and intimidation . Describing republican racketeers along the border as “good republicans” doesn’t raise confidence either.
    The muted response from the Executive, (or the opposition) I suggest is more to do with what the Executive can say which won’t hurt their far too cosy relationship with paramilitary groups yet provide enough weasel words to show all possible activity short of any outcome.
    Of course we do have an independent voice in the Executive in the form of our Justice Minister. Her prolonged silence on this report further underlines the perception that she is taking her line (orders) from Marlene.
    As for the police. George Hamilton has intimated he is keen to open up the Vault of millions of documents for some kind of truth process. Meantime, anything they can do to minimise the perception and the reality that integrating paramilitary thugs into community policing responses is a good strategy should be taken. It undermines their desire for impartial policing and the rule of law generally.
    Somewhat OT…You mentioned the Nolan Show. Has there been a decision taken by the Executive office and SF/DUP to shun the Nolan phone in? There has been a distinct lack of politicians on the show since the election.

  • ted hagan

    Sadly the Belfast Agreement, for all of its benefits, sanctioned terrorism on both sides in its dealings and negotiations with the paramiliaries and their prisoners while ignoring the majority of the citizens who had stood bravely against all terrorism. We won a peace, thank goodness, but with it came the added baggage of the paramiltaries who were awarded legitimacy. They won’t be easy to get rid of