Protocol row | 

Loyalist paramilitaries 'won't disband' while the Irish Sea border remains in place

Hawks swoop to scupper protocol talks as theat of violence sky high
John 'Bunter' Graham

John 'Bunter' Graham

Richard Sullivan

Loyalist paramilitaries are not prepared to engage in a disbandment process while the Irish Sea border remains in place.

Their failure to respond to calls from the Independent Reporting Commission for them to engage on ways to disband raises the prospect of more paramilitary violence.

Opinions within the UVF and UDA are divided over the way forward with a substantial element in favour of moving toward disbandment.

But the Sunday World can reveal, however, that hawks are hampering the process, and the outcome of ongoing talks between the UK government and Brussels is key to their future existence.

Loyalist paramilitary sources have told the Sunday World the likelihood of fresh violence is 'extremely high'.

They said initial optimism about the outcome of talks over the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is rapidly diminishing.

PSNI riot teams at Lanark Way

PSNI riot teams at Lanark Way

According to one well placed source: "We reserve our right to defend our citizenship and if that means putting our disbandment on the long finger then so be it."

The source, a veteran member of the UVF said there are many within the organisation - mostly veterans - who are in favour of a process which would see them consigned to the pages of history.

The IRC, was set up in 2017 under the terms of Fresh Start two years earlier. The four person commission is made up of former Human Rights Commissioner Professor Monica McWilliams, Ireland's former ambassador to Washington Tim O'Connor, solicitor John McBurney and ex-US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Mitchel Reiss.

They call for the formation of a formal body with representation from all interested parties including the governments and organisations such as the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains.

If established the process would mirror that which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and incorporate a decommissioning process.

But the Commission acknowledges that almost a quarter of a century after the signing of the GFA paramilitaries remain a threat to peace and retain the capability to escalate street violence.

Difficulties and resentments built up over Brexit and the imposition of an Irish Sea border have already seen outbreaks of violence and the return of guns to the streets and the Commission is fearful a repeat is likely.

An anti-Northern Ireland Protocol rally

An anti-Northern Ireland Protocol rally

"Disorder on the streets in the Spring and Autumn have led to speculation about the potential for a resurgence of paramilitary activity.

"We remain concerned about the risks posed to society by the continuing existence of paramilitary structures which can be harnessed for the purposes of violence or the threat of violence.

"We stated in our last Report and we repeat now: paramilitarism remains a clear and present danger."

In recent months the UVF leadership has wrestled with the prospect of meeting their commitment to move away from criminality.

Ongoing involvement in organised crime has hampered those efforts. Chief of Staff John 'Bunter' Graham is known to favour a move towards disbandment.

Bu the Commission conclude paramilitary groups remain mired in wide range of criminal activity, ranging from extortion, drug dealing, threats, trade in counterfeit goods, money laundering, illegal moneylending, sexual exploitation and other illegal activities.

"There are dormant members who retain some form of affiliation with a group - perhaps willingly, or perhaps because there is not a means to exit the group - who may pay a membership fee, and whilst not presently active in the organisations could be asked to play a role in the future.

"We consider that there is a further category of those who remain involved in paramilitarism for political and identity reasons which reach back to the Troubles."

The report states there is an element who are committed to moving organisations away from crime.

But it is against a backdrop of increasing loyalist violence which has seen them responsible for almost 80 per cent of punishment attacks.

Loyalist organisations have also been responsible for a majority of gun and bomb attacks across the year - an indication of how effective the PSNI has been against dissident organisations.

In a joint statement the Commissioners said that while they have been encouraged by efforts to reform paramilitary groups, not enough is being done.

"While policing and justice measures are essential in bringing paramilitarism to an end, they are not enough in themselves and need to be situated inside a wider, more holistic approach that includes tackling the deep and systemic socio economic issues facing communities, and in particular those communities where paramilitary control is strongest. This Twin Track approach is crucial to comprehensively tackling paramilitarism."

They propose the establishment of a "dedicated, formal process of engagement with an end goal of disbandment be taken forward."

They said a process of engagement similar to that which led to the Good Friday Agreement is needed to transition paramilitaries away from crime.

"We are acutely aware of the harm caused by paramilitary activity. Our report highlights good practice from the Executive Programme for Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime and the importance of the Whole of Government approach but we also note that further action on specific measures is required.

"In summary, our overall view continues to be that paramilitarism remains a clear and present danger.

"New structures have been put in place to tackle paramilitarism, and new approaches are underway but more needs to be done."

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