Northern Ireland

Responsibility of paramilitary groups to ‘leave’ – peace fund chief

International Fund for Ireland chairman Paddy Harte said it is key to allow the benefits of the peace process to reach every area of society.

Paddy Harte, new chairman of the International Fund for Ireland
Paddy Harte Paddy Harte, new chairman of the International Fund for Ireland (Liam McBurney/PA)

It is the responsibility of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland themselves to leave the stage, the chairman of a major peace fund has said.

The Independent Reporting Commission found in its annual report in December that 25 years after the landmark Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, paramilitarism represents a continuing threat to individuals and society.

The International Fund for Ireland helps support a number of groups who work to supports communities impacted by paramilitary groups.

Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) mural in support the of Ulster loyalist paramilitary group, on the wall of a property on the Lower Newtownards Road in east Belfast
IRC report on Paramilitarism Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) mural in support the of Ulster loyalist paramilitary group, on the wall of a property on the Lower Newtownards Road in east Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

Fund chair Paddy Harte paid tribute to the risks many take, describing paramilitary groups – both loyalist and dissident republicans – as exercising coercive control in some areas, and “taking away hope”.

“To have coercive control in any community in a modern democracy is not acceptable,” he told the PA news agency.

“Not only do they exercise coercive control but they also take away the hope that there is a way out.

“We’re more than more than happy to speak to people who are transitioning and therefore have the credentials to move the paramilitaries out of the space.

“But it’s quite a quite appalling that you as a parent can be told that your child has to go for an appointment for a kneecapping, and sometimes it’s said in almost a form of acceptance.”

Mr Harte said while communities are “doing the best we can … the basic bottom line is that paramilitaries have a responsibility to leave the stage”.

“They can do that. It’s not that communities’ responsibility that they’re there, it’s not the police’s responsibility that they’re there, it’s not the government’s responsibility – it’s the paramilitaries responsibility to leave and allow people to have the hope to lead normal lives,” he said.

Reflecting on events across the year to mark the 25th anniversary of the agreement, Mr Harte said the unequal distribution of the benefits of the peace process is the challenge now.

He said everyone has a role to play in this over the next 25 years.

“It is not just the Executive office and the community sector and all of the people who are in the peacebuilding world’s job to make sure that the peace holds and we build a better future – that’s everyone’s job,” he said.

“The places that were most affected by the Troubles remain held down. The rising tide doesn’t lift all boats … so there has to be positive discrimination in favour of those locations, otherwise those boats will remain down.

“And it’s difficult because the Troubles and the violence that people experienced has deep traumatic effects and left mistrust.

“There is an old saying that trust comes towards us on foot and leaves on on horseback, and it left on horseback.

“It’s coming back slowly on foot so to get those environments to the point where regeneration, better services and better health, more employment is a challenge.”

He also said that while there is frustration at the current political impasse that has seen the Stormont Assembly collapsed for almost two years, it is “better than the alternative”.

“We shouldn’t lose sight that, as frustrating and challenging, it is democratic, it is playing out democratic challenges and there is infinitely better than before,” he said.

“It’s not the best because people aren’t being served as well as they should be, however it is political negotiating and not the alternative, but you will eventually run out of trust if you don’t negotiate a solution.”

Mr Harte said the international eyes on Northern Ireland during the agreement events, the visit of US President Joe Biden and the investment conference showed the level of potential people see.

He paid tribute to Mr Biden as having a very long interest in the peace process, adding that he had been the last senator to speak in support of passing the bill to create the fund in 1986.

During President Joe Biden’s visit to Dundalk in Co Louth, he said the president took time out at the Windsor Bar to speak with young people involved in projects supported by the fund.

“You could see his interest in young people was palpable, He picked one young guy out, who struggled to get on the programme and was very nervous, and said you look like a guy who likes to keep fit, and he just blossomed and it was an amazing moment to watch,” he said.

“A person who deals with the most important issues in the world, being able to hone in to a young person.

“They were waiting there for five hours, so you could only have admiration for them, still happy to be there and have a very animated conversation with the president of the US which was fabulous.

“It was quite a privilege for us and good for the communities we work with to have that access.”

Looking ahead to 2024, Mr Harte said the fund is developing some of their programmes with strategic alliances with partners such as Catalyst and the Rio Ferdinand Foundation to connect up existing work towards employment

“We had been focused on helping people with the challenges they have, that was working well, and we thought there are partners around that can give people a more seamless route to employment,” he said.