Allison Morris: Law enforcement agencies playing 'whack-a-mole' with paramilitaries

Chief Constable George Hamilton looks on as National Crime Agency director General Lynne Owens talks at the first update of the Paramilitary Crime Task Force. Picture by Mal McCann

PROMISES to crack down on paramilitarism and organised crime are not new.

Successive political negotiations and agreements have included pledges to deal with the scourge of paramilitary activity.

While the peace process delivered an end to widespread violence, the dismantling of thse organisations was never seen as a priority.

Few could have envisaged a situation where almost 20 years on, paramilitary groups continue to exist, to recruit and to control some areas of Northern Ireland with a seemingly impenetrable grip.

The current Paramilitary Task Force made up of the PSNI, National Crime Agency, HMRC and a series of community-based organisations, set up as part of the Fresh Start Agreement, promised a more comprehensive approach to ending such criminality.

Almost two years in, with the best part of the second year operating in a political vacuum, and statistics appear to show it is an approach that is working.

With 100 arrests, 200 searches and half a million pounds in assets seized, including cars, guns and £230k worth of illegal drugs, it certainly sounds like there have been successes.

However, in real terms the crime enforcement agencies are simply playing a game of 'whack-a-mole' - no sooner do they arrest one suspected paramilitary drug dealer and another moves in to take his place.

The leaderships of the paramilitary groups remain intact because it is profitable to do so. Many key players continue to ride two horses - community workers with legitimate earnings and access to never-ending streams of funding by day, and gangsters raking in ill-gotten gains by night.

Monthly 'dues' are charged from the hundreds of members of these organisations, some born after the ceasefires more than 20 years ago.

The peace process has proved profitable and they now enjoy legitimacy from civic society and politicians willing to be pictured alongside them.

Task forces are all well and good but until there is political will to stand up to paramilitary leaders those groups will always exist. It is a situation that cannot be solved by law enforcement alone, regardless of how well resourced.

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