Paramilitary report must mean comprehensive change

The headlines around yesterday’s IMC-style report focused on the existence of the (Provisional) IRA, the DUP’s subsequent appointment of Ministers, and to some extent in social media on the ongoing existence of Loyalist paramilitary groups.

Of course, the political response ranges from flawed logic (apparently it does not matter how many people Loyalist paramilitaries intimidate or even murder, as long as they’re not in government) to outright lies (the report must be wrong because the IRA does not exist and Sinn Féin’s President was never in it even when it did). The civic response is going to need to be clearer, more reasoned, and frankly more courageous than that.

For the headline in the report was not the one widely quoted (because Stormont’s existence may depend on it), but a broader one in the summary at section ix:

The existence and cohesion of these paramilitary groups since their ceasefire has played an important role in enabling the transition from extreme violence to political progress. Much of the leaderships’ ability to influence, restrain and manage the expectations of its members draw on the authority conferred through these hierarchies. 

We may want to think about that long and hard. It is an open statement of something we all knew to be true – every political party, the security forces, the governments and so on. Yet it is intolerable.

By essentially giving a bye-ball to paramilitary leaders, we have:

  • ensured that we are absolutely not all “equal under the law”, including the effective enabling of a cross-border smuggling trade;
  • allowed, in much of the inner city in particular, a minority to dictate to a majority despite lacking any democratic mandate to do so, providing entirely for the wrong sort of role model;
  • placed into high office, including roles as Special Advisers, people who are not there on the basis of merit but rather on the basis of having in the past supported “extreme violence” (to quote the report), rendering at a disadvantage those who had always sought peaceful means;
  • devalued educational attainment and professional development as a means of attaining influence and high office, while giving the impression that “extreme violence” may in future be a viable route to them;
  • left entire communities entirely dependent on the public purse or other external funding, disempowering them completely from acting and competing in the real economy; and
  • disabled any truly effective community relations programmes, particularly in the inner city, by leaving “hierarchies” in place which draw their very legitimacy from fear and division.

Paying the penalty for this are not educated, professional suburbanites, but the very people in the inner city the two largest parties claim to serve. Yet they have done nothing to move us beyond entire communities living under the “influence and restraint” of “paramilitary leaders”, and thus left them deprived of any real potential for social change or economic growth.

However, it would be unfair to pin the blame entirely on the DUP and Sinn Féin. This has suited the governments and, up to a point, the other parties too.

The question now is a very real one: it is not just how we make “paramilitarism” go away, but also how we replace it with structures which will empower communities, promote economic growth, and encourage social cohesion. 21 years from the ceasefires, this is work which, disgracefully, we haven’t even truly started yet – all because of what is summed up in that single paragraph.

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