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The Presence of Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland has Again Become Normalised

The recent attempted murder of an off-duty police detective in Omagh was not an isolated incident, reports Emma De Souza

A forensic officer from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) at the scene where off-duty PSNI Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell was shot. Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Reuters/Alamy

The Presence of Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland has Again Become Normalised

The recent attempted murder of an off-duty police detective in Omagh was not an isolated incident, reports Emma De Souza

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“The streets will be in flames”, threatened loyalist paramilitaries just hours after the attempted murder of an off-duty police detective in a shooting last week that has been linked a dissident Republican paramilitary group.

Twenty-five years on from Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement, the region’s paramilitary presence not only persists but has seen its influence increasingly encroach onto the political landscape. 

The attack on Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, as he was coaching a kids football team, prompted a visceral response from communities and political representatives alike, with the leaders of Northern Ireland’s five largest parties delivering a unified condemnation of those responsible.

But this isn’t an isolated incident. Republican and loyalist paramilitaries are an enduring scourge rotting the foundation of Northern Ireland’s hard-fought peace process.

Despite both being illegal terrorist organisations tied to murder, drug dealing, trafficking, sectarian intimidation and paramilitary attacks, the UK Government classifies them differently, with republican paramilitaries being seen as terrorist organisations that represent a “national security threat”, while loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) – which issued the threat at the weekend to “wreck the place” over the Northern Ireland Protocol – are classified simply as “criminals”.

Alliance Party MLA Sorcha Eastwood has said “the UK Government can no longer continue with its current approach to loyalist paramilitaries – that their activities are simply criminality – and it is past time they treat them the same as they do dissident republicans”.

Paramilitaries were responsible for more than 3,000 murders throughout the course of the Northern Ireland conflict and, while large-scale armed confrontations in the region ceased decades ago, violence at the hands of paramilitary groups has remained an enduring threat to communities across Northern Ireland.

The New IRA, a splinter dissident republican group, has claimed responsibility for the attempted murder of John Caldwell — the most recent in a string of violent acts it has committed against police officers in the past year, following a bomb attack targeting two officers in November and the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in 2019.

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Of the loyalist paramilitary groups currently active in Northern Ireland, it’s thought that the UVF is responsible for the attempted murder of 24-year-old social care worker Jemma McGrath, who was shot five times in 2014. In 2019, the East Belfast division of the UVF was attached to the murder of Ian Ogle, in which the 45-year-old victim was beaten and stabbed to death near his home.

The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) is considered responsible for seven unsolved murders in Carrickfergus alone, the most recent of which targeted terminally-ill Glenn Quinn, who was beaten to death in his home in 2019.

To date, no one has been prosecuted for these murders, while the Quinn family, who have been campaigning for justice since, continue to face regular death threats from the loyalist paramilitaries thought to be responsible, forcing the victim’s 78-year-old grieving mother to install a robust home security system to protect herself.

The Independent Reporting Commission – established in 2015 to report annually on the progress made towards ending the prolonged paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland – maintains that paramilitaries remain a “clear and present” threat.

It is reported that loyalist paramilitaries are actively recruiting, with 12,500 members and a monthly criminal income of £250,000 in members ‘dues’. Republican paramilitaries number far fewer, at only a few hundred members. Both have sought to find a foothold in the fall-out from Brexit, with a marked increase in paramilitary threats and terrorist activity since the 2016 EU Referendum.

In 2017, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) established a Paramilitary Crime Task Force. Since then, more than 200 weapons and firearms have been taken off the streets, as well as £3.8 million worth of drugs. Paramilitary attacks and intimidation, however, remain rampant across the North with marked increases in paramilitary assaults in Derry and Strabane in the past year. 

According to the latest PSNI security bulletin, there were five bombing incidents, 32 paramilitary shooting incidents, and 26 paramilitary assaults in the past 12 months across Northern Ireland. These figures, however, do little to illustrate the harm and predatory community control exerted by paramilitaries in often disadvantaged areas across the region.

Northern Ireland’s Housing Executive has had to spend more than £7 million over a five-year period to re-house people forcefully evicted from their homes by paramilitary threats of violence, sectarianism and racism. More than 2,000 housing intimidation cases were reported over a three-year period in 2015-2018; in almost three-quarters of incidents reported the reason cited was threats from paramilitaries.

Loyalist paramilitaries including the UVF and UDA, along with the Red Hand Commando, are represented by the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – a group which, despite being representative of proscribed paramilitary organisations, has been increasingly treated by Government officials, political leaders, and the media as if it were a legitimate political stakeholder in Northern Ireland’s peace process.

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In 2021, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) — the department of the UK Government responsible for Northern Ireland affairs — met with the LCC in an official capacity to discuss Brexit. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has repeatedly sat down with the umbrella group, which issued a letter to Irish Government ministers in October warning of “dire consequences” and stating that no Irish Minister should enter Northern Ireland while the Northern Ireland Protocol remains. In recent days, the LCC’s chairman has suggested that violence may erupt from loyalist paramilitaries over the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

The group wrote to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson withdrawing its support for the Good Friday Agreement. Its statements are regularly given a platform by the mainstream media, lending implicit legitimacy to its standing.

The timeframe delineated for the disbandment of all paramilitaries under the Agreement has long since passed and the presence of paramilitary forces not only continues to be tolerated, but has become normalised.

We are subject to adverts discouraging individuals from putting their trust into paramilitary groups for protection akin to the ad campaigns warning against the dangers of drink driving. We walk down streets with paramilitary flags illegally flying atop lamp posts. We see paramilitary threats scrawled across walls, outside schools, and read about them in the newspaper as if any of this is normal.

Would the UK Government be engaging with criminal gang leaders in England to better understand their views on Brexit?

A quarter of a century ago, the Good Friday Agreement reaffirmed a concerted governmental commitment toward the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. But you wouldn’t be faulted for believing otherwise. 

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