Are ‘loyalists’ really involved in evictions?

Social media is alive with rumour about the identity of security guards involved in the repossession of a farm and house in County Roscommon. In retaliation for the eviction, a large vigilante group stormed the property early on Sunday, leaving eight security guards injured, one guard dog dead, and six vehicles burnt out.

Anger was fuelled by a video of the eviction which went viral over the weekend. In it, security guards dressed in black are seen roughly treating elderly men. Some appear to have Northern Irish accents. One, when asked if he is not ashamed to be treating fellow Irishmen in such a way, replies that he is “British”.

Black security uniforms, Northern accents and British identities have fuelled claims that these men were “loyalist” and even “paramilitary” by many commentators who see the video and even one witness to the eviction. It’s a false assumption that being British and from Northern Ireland is sufficient to be deemed a “loyalist”.

So where does mere rumour stop and fact begin? We investigate in the latest episode of The Irish Passport podcast and lay out the facts. You can hear all the details about what we’ve discovered online now.

Here is what can be established about paramilitaries, the security industry, and repossessions.

Are there people who were involved in conflict in Northern Ireland working in the security industry?

As of 2011 the Security Industry Authority, which issues licenses to people allowing them to work as security guards in the UK, had issued 10,981 licenses. It had received 74 applications from people with conflict-related convictions predating the Good Friday Agreement, of which 69 were successful. According to updated figures sent to us from the SIA, between January 2016 to December 19 2018 there were 15 applications from people with conflict-related convictions from before 1998, and all of these applications were successful.

According to current SIA guidelines, the body can only know if a conviction is conflict-related if the applicant declares this. Such convictions do not automatically exclude applicants from being licensed. “The fact that an offence was conflict related and pre-dates the Good Friday agreement will be taken into account when considering the whole of a person’s criminal record,” the SIA notes.

According to a consultation paper by the Northern Ireland Office on how the security industry should be regulated, “The industry is particularly vulnerable to penetration by paramilitaries because of low barriers of entry to those wishing to provide a private security service. There have been examples in Northern Ireland of private security services being subverted to act as a cover for criminality, for example, the provision of security guards to provide cover for running a ‘protection racket’.”

However, the Department of Justice notes that about 30,000 people were imprisoned as a result of the conflict, constituting as much as 31% of men born in the 1950s and early 60s. Official guidance is that it is important to help former prisoners into employment, and that a conflict-related conviction should not automatically bar them from work.

Essentially, pre-1998 convictions for republican or loyalist activity are within the norm in the security industry in Northern Ireland and are not necessarily suspicious.

What about current involvement?

Current involvement with illegal organisations is a sensitive issue that is difficult to establish solid facts on.

However, we spoke to a person in the security industry who has previously worked with some of the people involved in the Roscommon eviction, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He told us that one of the contractors involved had indeed hired people with current loyalist paramilitary links in the past.

Is the use of Northern Irish security guards in evictions in the republic legal?

Currently, the carrying out of repossessions in the republic is unregulated. The Private Security Authority, the licensing agency for security guards in Ireland, told us ”the execution of repossession orders is not a matter which falls within the remit of the PSA”.

The situation in the UK is slightly different. Guidance from the SIA indicates that security guards licensed by them can and do take part in evictions. However, it emphasises that SIA license holders have no special powers over the public. It states that the SIA has no say over what behaviour by such guards is appropriate, and that this is a matter for the security company involved (or the police). SIA-licensed guards are commonly advertised by security companies as appropriate staff to carry out evictions.

The mutual recognition of UK and Irish licenses was explored when SIA licensing was introduced to Northern Ireland in 2009 in a bid to reduce criminality in the industry and improve standards. However, this was not concluded. In order to perform one of the eight roles licensed by the PSA (door supervisor, locksmith etc), SIA-license holders should need to apply for a PSA license as well.

According to the PSA, the regulation of the execution of repossession orders is under review due to the high-profile eviction of housing activists who were occupying a building on North Frederick Street in Dublin in September.

This was also the first time that concerns about the use of security guards from Northern Ireland came to prominence. The eviction involved men wearing black balaclavas and a British-registered van previously used by Greater Manchester Police. Again, this was enough to fuel rumours of security agents being “loyalist paramilitaries”. The timing unfortunately coincided the first weeks of the appointment of former PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris as Garda commissioner, leading to — baseless — conspiracy theories about these events being linked.

One thing is absolutely clear: given the historical sensitivities and the context we have laid out, the sensitivities of using Northern Irish security guards in evictions in the republic is deeply reckless.

We asked KBC Bank, widely reported to be the financial institution involved in the Roscommon repossession, to comment on this policy and whether it had considered the sensitivities in question. The bank refused to comment, except to issue the same generic statement given to all media:

“We are aware of the situation in Roscommon and that the matter is being dealt with by An Garda Síochána. Unfortunately, we cannot provide comment on individual cases.”