There were two protest actions that came amongst the outpouring of grief from the murder of Lyra McKee.
Both challenged the complicity our society gives criminal gangs operating in Northern Ireland; those which shelter behind historic letters and seep through violent murals.
Violent murals act to normalise their criminality, and their suffocation of working class areas across Northern Ireland. As do their gang flags.
Put simply, paramilitary murals are the subliminal advertising of criminal organisations in Northern Ireland.
To be clear, ‘gang’ in this article is used in place of what most in NI – politicians, police and press – call ‘paramilitaries’.
By dealing in criminality for profit, whether that be by smuggling, drugs, modern slavery, extortion or exploitation, you are a gang. And that is exactly what dissidents, what the UVF and what the UDA all do.
And when I refer to ‘violent murals’, I mean those which carry the insignia of active gangs in NI, promote the continued use of violence in NI, depict balaclavas or show weaponry which isn’t couched in WW1 history.
The Fresh Start Report
In May 2016, a report commissioned by Stormont about the on-going impact and the reality of gangs in Northern Ireland was released; the ‘Fresh Start’ report.
This report said it is “important to consider how or when society is prepared, legally, socially and politically, to stop treating the remaining groups as paramilitary organisations and, instead, treat them as organised crime gangs.” That time must be now.
The report notes “most paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland are no longer engaged in planning or executing terrorist activities. To the extent that criminal activities are carried out by members of groups on ceasefire, their activities typically amount to organised crime, largely within their own communities. The labels of Loyalist or Republican paramilitary groups are often used as a ‘badge of convenience’ but the activities tend to be purely criminal and not linked to any broader political objective. 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. It also has the effect of aggrandising the capacity of those responsible for criminal acts. We believe, with the exception of any ongoing terrorist activity, the focus should now be on criminality.”
Impacts of These Gangs
The problem of gangs in Northern Ireland is incredibly real. Between April 2015 and October 2018, 1,488 households presented themselves as homeless due to “paramilitaries”.
There has never been a political response to this.
That means, in a very small country, we have a significant amount of internal displacement caused by gangs – that is not normal.
That demonstrates the scale of the problem we face, which came to a head with the loss of a brilliant journalist on the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement this year.
Protest Against Murals
The two Lyra McKee protests directly targeted murals. One of the murals targeted was within the Creggan estate which Lyra was murdered in. That mural spoke of the “undefeated” army of the IRA and the “unfinished” war.
Someone, or some group, decided to take paint to that mural. They washed it with their brush to remove the ‘un’s; this made it read “defeated” army and “finished” war.
The second protest was targeted against the New IRA’s political wing. A group of women who were friends of Lyra’s went to that group’s murals, dipped their hands in red paint and lay those hands across it, leaving it defaced with blood red hands. Police watched on, while dissidents stood cross-armed by their mural. One of those woman turned to a dissident while laying her hands upon the mural and uttered with a dignified intensity ‘we’re not scared of you‘. It was an embodiment of the force of spirit required to bring about the Alternative Ulster we once sung about.
Both protests highlighted the power of violent murals, and how corrosive they can be; the subsequent reintroduction of one of the murals – with the clear objective of stopping cooperation with the police – highlighted their toxicity.
This is why moving against our society’s complicity to gangs must begin with dismantling violent murals.
While the ‘Reimaging Communities’ programme has had a genuinely positive impact in pockets of NI (transformations like in Sandy Row being a shining example), we continue to allow gangs to use murals and gang flags to exert control and challenge police control in working class areas across our country. The level of bravery required from Lyra’s friends to carry out their mural protest highlights their toxic, suffocating presence over the areas they’re planted into.
Gangs in NI exert influence by being able to point to a veil of validity – the idea that if a mural exists in a community, it is because that community supports their continued presence. The Fresh Start report states that gangs “assert their presence through certain memorials, graffiti and flags displaying paramilitary emblems.”
If we remove those violent murals, we rip from these gangs their vail of validity; we rip them from the community roots they claim.
These are groups who monetise despair, either through exploitation, extortion or drug sales – the idea that they are one and the same as the working class communities they feed off and place their murals amongst is an insult to the communities themselves.
Removing violent murals is obviously not a cure all but attacking their symbols of control is such an obvious demonstration that our state will no longer be complicit in it.
The fact that political parties and police do not do this already is an indication of the problem.
It should not be a private citizen to take their safety and that of their family into their own hands by chucking paint at the murals in their town.
Yet currently that is the only chance we have.
The reason New York introduced a “broken window” theory in the 1990s to deal with endemic crime was because they came to understand that by allowing small shows of crime to go unabated, you embolden some significant crime. In NI, we have only encouraged gangs since the Good Friday Agreement by allowing their shows of strength to go unchallenged, by dismissing it as low level law breaking.
An exposé by the Nolan Show highlighted how police deal with such instances; they knocked on a woman and her family’s door late at night and told her there was a threat on her life. They recommended she pack her things. They then left. They provided no support or protection – they acted as postmen for a gang threat.
The Fresh Start report highlights the State’s uncomfortable connection with these gangs: it notes the common practice of police engaging with gang members to “ensure peaceful outcomes to parading disputes and other issues, including flags and anti-social behaviour even though they are members of proscribed organisations” and recommends that this must change.
“[I]n 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 says that the police, the Executive, other public and community bodies and politicians “should review their protocols for engaging with representatives of paramilitary groups“.
How the police deal with bonfire and flag situations shows how far away we are from anything like a normalised situation. It’s vital we try to move forward. Facilitating the burning of unregulated towers of pallets on private and public land – which are as high as the surrounding houses – is not a reflection of a society governed by the rule of law. Regulated bonfires up and down the country, with transparent responsibility and the requirement of licences (similar to parades), is not anathema to positive Orange cultural expression. But in that vacuum of regulation – of rule of law – these gangs thrive.
Last year, to reduce the number of pallets illegally put in a public space, police had to cordon off the area and provide an armed protection to subcontractors with covered faces clearing away the pallets.
It has to be commended, but that much protection being necessary is not normal; but it has been normalised.
The way the police and politicians respond to gang acts is also instructive. Describing approaching someone with a gun is not “reckless” – it’s criminal. Politicians shouldn’t ask for the gang to withdraw their threat, or ask the gang to go away – it should call upon police to pinpoint the culprits and bring them to justice. That change in terminology won’t transform our society alone, but the current language reflects a level of acceptance of gang presence.
Politicians are a huge part of the problem; reform is always beyond reach where there is such an insipid lack of any brave leadership from our two main parties’ leaderships means we have no devolution to change things, and if we did, no ambition to do so.
The historically complex line Sinn Fein treads is well versed, but the DUP deserves particular attention – whilst preaching morality with one hand, they provide complicity to gangs by shielding intimidatory flag, parade and mural practices with the other, as Emma Little-Pengelly did soon after taking office. Even more explicit complicity was on show when a DUP local council candidate was photographed attending a “UDA benefit night” in a gang embodied t-shirt; the DUP still allowed him to stand. That is not normal.
The Social Investment Fund – one of the most underreported scandals in NI of modern times- provides another shocking insight. It saw Sinn Fein and the DUP carve out UK money given to us to address our levels of child poverty and divvy it out to ‘charities’ very closely aligned to gangs. The Charter NI story in particular was shocking.
On top of that are stories of how a community group, Belfast South Community Resources (BSCR), who the Belfast Telegraph argues have “strong UDA links”, received £757,000 of Social Investment Fund funds to buy a group of offices. The paper also reports that the offices have been used by current UDA members in Sandy Row as a “kangaroo court”. The DUP MP, Christopher Stalford, now rents one of these offices, meaning his Parliamentary allowance for his constituency office now goes directly to the BSCR.
That is not normal; it cannot continue to be.
Where from here
While we may not all have the bravery – nor should we be expected to – to protest against murals as some did following Lyra McKee’s murder, we can apply political pressure to demand this change.
We can also call out everyday complicity. St Patrick’s Day and the 12th July cannot be excuses for people to sing songs endorsing these gangs; we must no longer say paramilitary rather than gang; we have to stop feeding these gangs by purchasing drugs, as when someone dies of an overdose in NI, the shadow of one of those acronyms casts long across it.
But more significant legal, political and culture reform is required to unhook these criminal gangs from their perch. The removal of these noose-like violent murals should be the first signal of change, as there must be a tangible challenge to gang control of our areas.
On Thursday 30 May, three men accused of murdering George Gilmore in a gang feud that erupted in Larne and Carrick in 2017 were acquitted of all charges. After the three men’s supporters in the galleries finished cheering, the judge ended his judgment with this:
“When is this society going to finally realise that these self-styled paramilitary organisations are nothing other than a cancer feeding off the deeply rooted tribal fears of the communities in which they operate?”
That time must be now; and with that realisation must come substantial reform.
I cannot claim to be impartial in this discussion – my disgust in these gangs is rooted in episodes that have occurred on the periphery of my life; it is rooted in then seeing their symbols fly tauntingly overhead afterwards; it is rooted in the continued justification we give for these gangs’ unrelenting presence in our communities, when all it brings is despair, toxicity and exploitation. As a society we cannot afford to be afraid of these people anymore, leaving single individuals to bear the consequences of challenging their impact.
What happened to Lyra McKee has to awaken all of us, and the magnificent protests that followed should direct our action. Lyra must have the same level of legacy as Stephen Lawrence – out of our tragedy must emerge equally as vital and seismic a reform, culturally, politically and legally. The continuance of our status quo cannot be an option.
Now is the time to be brave as a society; to be brave, to be angry and to be determined.
Image by DColt licensed under Creative Commons.
Michael is from Kells, Ballymena, and began writing comment pieces alongside his job following graduating in law from Cambridge. In particular, he has written for the Independent (UK); one of these featured on the The Times Red Box and several of which were republished by the Belfast Telegraph. He has also written for Legal Cheek. He is a commercial litigator at a London city law firm.