Newton Emerson: NIO's glossy platitudes on paramilitarism are not beyond criticism

Newton Emerson
Al Capone

For a decade from 1988 the Northern Ireland Office commissioned a series of public information commercials against paramilitarism, purportedly to encourage calls to the Confidential Telephone.

Punishment attacks featured prominently in this campaign. Staged footage of one in the first commercial was considered shocking and groundbreaking at the time.

We now know the premise of these advertisements was absurd. Anonymous tip-offs from the public provided no useful intelligence, let alone admissible evidence. The security forces were drowning in high-quality information from agents and surveillance - they had enough problems filtering that without being swamped by more. The Confidential Telephone was simply a prop in a hearts and minds operation.

It is fair to say there was always scepticism about the NIO campaign, especially after a change in tone in 1993, when it become more theatrical and overt in support of the peace process. It should also be noted this was hardly a decade-long conspiracy. The NIO had initially wanted to make a documentary backing the security forces but was told to pay for its own advertising, like everyone else. The 1993 change was an after the fact decision to capitalise on political developments. What made the NIO commercials debatable from the outset is how much effort and fanfare they put into stating the blindingly obvious - paramilitary violence rarely enjoyed more than fringe support throughout the Troubles and the vast majority of people expected the security forces to tackle it.

In a BBC documentary screened last May, advertising executives and former NIO officials involved in the campaign were forthright about its origins, aims and limitations. As far as most of them were concerned, it was noble work and they were proud to have been part of it.

Given the huge audience for that documentary, it is surprising there has been no debate over the campaign against paramilitarism launched last October, featuring billboards, radio advertisements and four lavishly-produced television and cinema commercials, all focused on punishment shootings.

The origins of this campaign are worth tracing to debunk any notions of a securocrat conspiracy. In 2015, the Fresh Start agreement committed the Stormont executive to tackling paramilitarism and associated crime. The Executive Office, comprising Sinn Féin and the DUP, set up an independent three-person panel to make recommendations. The panel reported in June 2016 and one month later the Executive Office published an action plan with 43 recommendations in response, amounting to a more assertive carrot and stick approach to paramilitary ‘peace processing'.

The Department of Justice was put in charge of implementing this plan, to which end it created a Tackling Paramilitarism Programme Board, with £50 million of funding pledged jointly from Stormont and Westminster. The Board is chaired by the Department of Justice and includes senior representatives from the Executive Office and the NIO, with the PSNI attending in an advisory capacity.

This entire system, complete with detailed objectives, was therefore ready to roll and on administrative autopilot before Stormont collapsed. The Department of Justice commissioned the new advertising campaign and it is entirely within its powers and remit to have done so. Producing unoriginal commercials that restate the obvious is almost certainly no more than the inevitable consequence of giving a budget to a committee of bureaucrats.

However, the campaign is not beyond criticism. In a statement this week, PSNI Detective Chief Superintendent Raymond Murray said he could not recall a single instance where a victim or witness to a punishment attack has given evidence, resulting in effectively no arrests or prosecutions, despite police invariably being able to identify the perpetrators. He called for more cooperation but this is a forlorn hope - people who have been subject to the ultimate intimidation are by definition the least likely to come forward. Placing the burden of tackling paramilitarism so heavily upon them looks like victim blaming at best and task avoidance at worst.

Queen's University Professor Liam Kennedy, a long-standing campaigner against punishment attacks, responded to Murray's statement by saying the onus is on the PSNI and the intelligence services to indict key paramilitary figures on other crimes. He is certainly correct and this is the promise of the 43-point action plan, with its focus on ‘associated criminality'.

Thirty years after the NIO's first commercial, we are surely beyond the point where we need to console ourselves with glossy platitudes that paramilitarism has to go. Al Capone was not jailed for gangsterism but for tax evasion, requiring no victim testimony. That is the stick the authorities should be waving around.

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