Government challenged to take action over scale of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland

PARAMILITARY groups continue to have thousands of members, with organisations involved in hundreds of acts of violence and intimidation each year in Northern Ireland, according to new figures compiled by Detail Data.

From 2006-15 paramilitaries were responsible for 22 killings, more than 1,000 shootings and bombings, 787 punishment attacks, there were nearly 4,000 reports of people forced from their homes by paramilitaries, while security alerts halted more than 4,000 train services.

Police believe there are currently 33 organised crime gangs directly linked to paramilitary groups, amassing tens of millions of pounds each year. But despite the scale of activity, the Northern Ireland Courts Service confirmed that from 2007-15 there were just over 80 convictions secured under terrorism legislation, leading to 48 prison terms. Security services have said convictions are also secured under non-terrorism legislation, while they also regularly disrupt planned attacks. But today’s report includes criticism of government failure to tackle the scale of violence 20 years into the peace process, with evidence that groups retain huge numbers of members, with large amounts of weaponry still in circulation. Within weeks of the May 5 Assembly elections a government-appointed panel is scheduled to present recommendations on disbanding paramilitary groups. This comes as there is also a focus on the failure to provide policies to re-integrate the estimated 30-40,000 former paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland.

Alan McBride of Belfast’s Wave Trauma Centre said he sees the impact of ongoing activity every day. “At least 50% of our referrals today are in relation to ongoing intimidation. “It is stuff that happened last week or the week before. In terms of this centre we would have on average 30-35 new referrals a month.”

Police Federation chairman Mark Lindsay said the full picture is obscured by the way data is recorded. “That is very much down to government recording methodology which states that a terrorist attack is one that is against a national security target. Our issue is that it doesn’t actually give you a true picture of where we are. I’m sure it would be captured somewhere but we are missing all the paramilitary attacks, all the incidents of terrorism that aren’t necessarily directed against police or military.”

But government and its agencies are reluctant to reveal data that allows full scrutiny of its performance in tackling paramilitaries.

AUTHORITIES RELUCTANT TO QUANTIFY PARAMILITARY MEMBERSHIP

Among the first barriers to evaluating the scale of the problem is confirming the size of the various illegal groups. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) told Detail Data it would not provide estimates. According to Rev Dr Gary Mason of Rethinking Conflict, an organisation that has worked closely with loyalist paramilitaries to deliver peaceful outcomes, loyalist paramilitary groups remain large. “At the heart of loyalist groups there would be a leadership of 30 to 40 people then a membership of several thousand,” he said.

Attendance at paramilitary-linked parades and the funerals of individuals linked to paramilitary groupings can also give an indication of group size and support. However, writer and political activist Eamonn McCann believes that in many ways, groups view support as being more important than numbers. “Like many people I was surprised when the IRSP/INLA managed to assemble 150 people in uniform to march at Peggy O’Hara’s funeral. A lot of them, looking at their girths and whiskers were not young recruits. But anyone who doubts that there is significant support for dissident republicans, particularly among young people, shouldn’t. “As far as I know, to the best of my knowledge, paramilitary organisations are not in a recruitment campaign as at the moment they don’t need an awful lot of numbers.”

In 2005 MI5 took over lead role for national security intelligence work in Northern Ireland, with director general Andrew Parker stating in 2013 that the move had enabled the “vast majority” of dissident republican attacks to be “detected and disrupted”. Despite this, MI5 states that the threat continues to be severe in Northern Ireland and moderate in Britain.

INSIDE PRISONS

Data provided by the Northern Ireland Prison Service shows the number of individuals held in separated wings housing loyalists and republicans between 2009 and 2015 at Maghaberry Prison in Co Antrim. Viusalisation of this data can be found here

TRAVEL DISRUPTION

While some communities suffer higher levels of paramilitary activity than others, figures obtained by Detail Data also illustrate the scale of disruption across Northern Ireland. Data secured through Freedom of Information requests made to Translink and PSNI showed how security alerts and paramilitary attacks had forced road closures and stopped rail travel. From 2013-15 there were 193 road closures, while between 2006-15 there were 176 security alerts on rail lines, halting more than 4,000 train services. Click here to view the interactive graphic pictured below, where daily incidents are recorded.

A FRESH START?

Given the scale of the wider paramilitary problem the Fresh Start Agreement, negotiated last year to stabilise the political process in Northern Ireland, appointed a three person panel to advise on the issue. The panel is scheduled to report in May, at a time when some experts in the field are arguing for a version of the United Nations endorsed concept of DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration). This could see existing barriers to employment, travel and insurance removed for many ex-prisoners, allowing them to re-integrate into society.

Government is criticised for failing to introduce a re-integration strategy for former paramilitary prisoners. In addition, the Department of Justice said it had no official figures for the numbers of former paramilitary prisoners. But estimates place the figure for ex-prisoners that were jailed during the Troubles at 30-40,000. The Northern Ireland Office declined to reveal how many of the 464 prisoners released early from jail under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 had since breached the terms of their release.However, the Sentence Review Commission confirmed that since 1998, 21 of the prisoners released early were recalled to prison, while 13 ultimately had their early release licence revoked.

According to Michael Culbert of Coiste na nIarchimí, a group that works with former PIRA prisoners, removing barriers to employment would also eliminate a potential recruitment tool for dissident groups. "A weapon being used against support for the peace process are people, a lot of them former political prisoners, pointing and saying nothing has changed,” he said. “There is a sizeable rump, not very big, but if we are truthful about it, it only takes one finger to pull the trigger.”

Tom Roberts of EPIC, a group working with former prisoners from the loyalist UVF, said a working group from OFMDFM had produced a strategy to reintegrate ex-prisoners. He said the employment guidelines the working group proposed in 2007 (https://www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk/articles/news-conflict-transformation) failed as a result of political barriers. “If you don’t give people who were involved in the conflict the chance to avail of the services that are available to the general public then it makes it more difficult for these groups to civilianise,” he said. “The ex-prisoners’ working group which has been chaired by the successive heads of the civil service has been in operation since the Good Friday Agreement. And while the civil servants who service that group have been more than helpful in trying to address the issues, without the political will there has really been no movement on those issues.

Detail Data asked Stormont’s Department of Finance and Personnel, which sets civil service recruitment policy, for its current position on the employment of ex-prisoners. However, the department declined the opportunity to respond. For Alan McBride the prospect of ex-paramilitaries having such barriers removed would be difficult for many victims to accept, but could be necessary for wider society. “I know from working at Wave, we have many people here, who have reached that point where they are ready to sit down and meet with people who were involved in atrocities and discuss the future of Northern Ireland. We have others that it would be an anathema to even contemplate sitting down with someone who was involved in terrorism. “I think that we do have to move on. We do have to find a way of dealing with the hurt and all of the trouble that was caused in the past.”

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