A plan to tackle paramilitaries: It’s not perfect, but it’s a start

Last week’s British-Irish intergovernmental treaty aimed at eradicating paramilitaism follows what has been a significant year in Northern Irish politics, not least given November’s Fresh Start Agreement and May’s Assembly election result.

Most harrowingly, however, the joint accord follows the deaths of prison officer Adrian Ismay and father-of-four Michael McGibbon in north Belfast.

The former murder says something about the continued push by dissident republicans against state forces; the latter illustrates the prolonged use of an iron fist by armed groups amongst their own communities.

Both offer a stark reminder that a continued laissez-faire approach in tackling paramilitary activity is a dangerous one.

The establishment of an Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) is promising, given the multi-party commitment to its success. This new scrutiny body will hold the Northern Ireland Executive to account in fulfilling pledges laid out in Fresh Start and the Executive Action Plan For Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime published in July. At first glance the strategy appears both hopeful and purposeful, but it is far from perfect.

Given that the issue of paramilitarism here is a complex one, and considering the powers-that-be cannot decide whose responsibility it is to remove flags from lampposts, certain aspects of the new plan – promoting lawfulness, for instance – hardly seem convincing. The plan risks becoming little more than idealism on paper.

Both Fresh Start and the Executive’s Action Plan fail to recognise the nuances of paramilitary groups that, more often than not, encompass thuggery, crime, drugs and racketeering. Yet, where it falls short is its continual analysis of these groups through a one-dimensional lens as groups operating on the basis of political grievance. As history has taught us, treating them all as the same will get us nowhere.

Thankfully the Action Plan moves beyond the age-old tactic of simply encouraging individuals to come forward with information on paramilitaries, unreasonably putting the onus on members of the community. However, it is not clear that the Executive fully grasps that the eradication of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland cannot simply be legislated around in the same way that issues relating to finance, education or health can be.

The unfortunate truth is that such groups, whether driven by lining their pockets or genuine political grievances, need to be part of a conversation. Perhaps they even need to filter into new roles in the community or political sphere in the same way that republican and loyalist paramilitaries have previously transitioned into new roles. Talks, whilst disagreeable to many, may be unavoidable if there is a true desire for change.

Like any type of organised crime, social issues almost always lie at the epicenter. The Executive rightly recognises that a holistic approach is needed. Tackling inequality, educational underachievement and division is a solid starting point to quash organised crime and promote lawfulness.

What is most refreshing is the focus on tackling paramilitarism in the here and now rather than fixation on the past and the constitutional question.

Whilst there is no time frame surrounding the plan, and no doubt many loopholes will be picked at, we can hope this is a fresh start in itself; one which will enable us to look back and measure not the plan itself but the progress towards lawfulness.