Recent weeks have seen a rise in concern about the continuing presence of paramilitaries in our society. Just how we make faster progress in removing them is the question considered in the latest Holywell Conversations podcast.
Clearly, 25 years ago when the Good Friday Agreement was approved by the public, they would have expected paramilitaries to have been fully or largely removed from our society by now. Yet we still see significant activity by both loyalist and republican groups.
Should we, though, as chief executive of Co-operation Ireland and former senior PSNI and RUC officer Peter Sheridan suggests, refer to some of the groups simply as organised crime gangs? Would that reflect more accurately where our society is in comparison to those places in Dublin, London and the United States, for example, which are also burdened by drug-related criminality?
Given that paramilitaries exercise coercive control over communities, with territories marked out by flags, is effective regulation and policing of the use of flags an essential element in asserting dominance over paramilitary groups? This is an approach favoured by Professor Dominic Bryan, who was joint chair of the commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition. And why is that commission’s report, as Bryan puts it, sitting on shelves “gathering dust”, rather than being implemented?
Despite this sense of negativity, we should reflect on the progress achieved, especially since the Fresh Start Agreement of 2015, which identified the need to end paramilitarism “once and for all”. It established the Independent Reporting Commission to focus on this.
The trend since then has been downward, though it rose again in the last year. In the 12 months ending 31st May, there was one security-related death; seven bombings; 33 shootings; and 32 casualties of paramilitary assaults.
Tackling paramilitary criminality is handled jointly by the PSNI, An Garda Síochána, HMRC, the National Crime Agency and the security services. It is the approach of the PSNI, in particular, that has been questioned, with critics suggesting that heavy-handed policing undermines acceptance of the PSNI in poorer communities and has led to greater support for paramilitaries.
These complaints grew in recent days with the arrest in public sight of a health care worker in Derry, with very public comments about the arrest from the PSNI. This led to strong criticisms of the police from her solicitors, Madden and Finnucane.
The firm stated that “to arrest a woman with no criminal record, from her place of work where she is a well respected health care professional wholly unconnected to criminality of any kind, and to then denigrate her good name in the most egregious way, is to be condemned and deplored”.
Asked whether heavy handed policing undermines the PSNI’s attempts at tackling paramilitaries, Sheridan put the spotlight on how the Policing Board sees its role. “The Policing Board needs to be more vocal around this stuff and take more public responsibility,” he says, adding that the political parties should nominate more senior members onto the Board, to raise its status. “I think Sinn Fein are probably the only people today who put people onto the Board who are particularly well known.”
The podcast, including the interviews with Peter Sheridan and Dominic Bryan, can be listened to at the Holywell Trust website.
Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects.