Any approach must ‘have the imprimatur of the governments in London, Dublin and Stormont’
An organisation representing loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland has called on the Irish and British governments and the North’s Assembly to take the “hard political decisions” to remove paramilitarism from society.
The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), which represents the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Red Hand Commando, met the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) on Wednesday.
The IRC – which was set up by the Irish and UK governments and aims to bring an end to paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland – is due to release its next report in November.
“Hopefully out of the meeting today they [THE IRC]are seeing there is an urge and an interest within loyalism to move beyond paramilitarism, to move to a place where it can be helped and supported by governments,” said Jim Wilson of the Loyalist Communities Council.
Citing the example of the Red Hand Commando, which had a request to be de-proscribed – or legalised – rejected, Mr Wilson said that “at the minute there’s nothing for any group that wants to go down the road of removing it from the paramilitary scene … there’s no system that we would have where we could even see it starting and try and get to an endgame. Government needs to do that.”
Speaking to The Irish Times after the meeting, Winston Irvine of the Loyalist Communities Council said any approach needed to be “comprehensive” and must “have the imprimatur of the governments in London, Dublin and Stormont.
“If they want to fully civilianise Northern Ireland and remove the paramilitarism dynamic from society then there needs to be some big political decisions taken and there needs to be careful policy discussions within these [Loyalist] groupings,” he said.
But he warned that the organisations must be involved if the plans were to be successful. “Any top-down approach doesn’t work and won’t work,” he said.
Within the loyalist leadership, Mr Irvine said, there had been “ample evidence to suggest that those groupings are on a transformation and transitioning process.
“They want to see their communities free of paramilitary activity, they want to see a process that deals with the past, they want to see the socio-economic factors addressed,” he said.
“The loyalist intent I think is very clear and evident. They want to see a process under which all of the armed groups, the Provisional IRA included, can bring about a Northern Ireland without paramilitarism.”
However, he warned of a number of factors which he said must be recognised, including the uncertainty of Brexit and the marginalisation of loyalists, who he said had been “criminalised and demonised” whereas the narrative around the Provisional IRA had been “sanitised”.
This, he said, put the loyalist leadership under pressure from the grass roots when trying to achieve progress towards ending paramilitarism.
“If progress towards ending paramilitarism is going to be assessed, there needs to be an equitable approach,” he said.
This was particularly acute when addressing the challenge of bringing all of their membership with them, but said the Loyalist Communities Council’s assessment was that it had the capability to “take the critical mass forward.”