Opinion

Chris Donnelly: Will loyalist paramilitary 'transitioning' ever end?

Chris Donnelly

Chris Donnelly

Chris is a political commentator with a keen eye for sport. He is principal of a Belfast primary school.

The British government continuing to meet and treat the self-described representative body for the loyalist gangs as a credible outfit
The British government continuing to meet and treat the self-described representative body for the loyalist gangs as a credible outfit The British government continuing to meet and treat the self-described representative body for the loyalist gangs as a credible outfit

The word 'transition' has many different meanings. In a school setting, we talk about transition to mark and prepare for the graduation of children through the various phases of formal education. Transition can also refer to words or phrases used to connect segments of a speech or piece of writing.

Transition has also come to be understood in this modern age as the process by which a transgender individual permanently adopts the outward or physical characteristics matching their gender identity.

In 'Loyal Ulster', transition is understood as the never-ending process by which paramilitary groups, first established more than 50 years ago, can pretend to be interested in withering away whilst continuing to recruit and engage in the full range of illegal activities common to all criminal gangs.

Read more:

  • East Belfast UVF leadership ordered to stand down by hierarchy
  • East Belfast UVF linked to major drugs supply network and criminality
  • UVF members told to step up security

This form of transitioning comes state-approved, with the British government continuing to meet and treat the self-described representative body for the loyalist gangs as a credible outfit in spite of the fact it's almost exactly a year since that body relayed a threat which seemed to imply the loyalist ceasefire could be in doubt.

The Ulster Volunteer Force used the occasion of British Remembrance Sunday earlier this month to declare that it was standing down some of its members in the east Belfast faction of the paramilitary organisation.

Odd tone to some media reports about east Belfast UVF

The news was reported as if a political party had suspended members of a local branch.

One newspaper ran a headline declaring 'Future for a changing UVF is uncertain, but leaders determined to avoid mistakes of the past' which, to a foreign visitor with no knowledge of this place, could just as easily have appeared to be written about a banking institution or sports club.

A notable feature of how the story unfolded was how little commentary there was about the involvement of loyalist paramilitary groups in British Remembrance events.

A few months ago, Stephen Nolan used his BBC radio and television programmes to lead the charge in claiming that the involvement of Sinn Féin members in republican commemorations was not only offensive but acted to 'retraumatise' victims of the Troubles.

Of course, accepting that logic would mean acknowledging that acts of remembrance for the British Army, RUC, UDR and indeed loyalist paramilitary groups must be deemed as equally offensive and likely to retraumatise victims of those organisations.

Strangely (or perhaps not), such discussions did not feature in broadcasts last week.

Loyalist paramilitaries aren't interested in 'transitioning'

Twenty-nine years on from the first loyalist ceasefire, there would appear to be very few actively involved in the world of illegal loyalist paramilitarism today genuinely committed to the dissolution of these organisations.

Dawn Purvis walked away from the Progressive Unionist Party more than 13 years ago when it became clear to her that the gang leaders had zero interest in transitioning out of existence.

The UVF has ordered its east Belfast leadership to 'stand down'
The UVF has ordered its east Belfast leadership to 'stand down' The UVF has ordered its east Belfast leadership to 'stand down'

Back in March of this year, the PSNI publicly linked the UVF with all drug trading in the east of the city. The UVF, like the UDA, exists as a criminal gang, giving status and largesse to individuals who otherwise would be leading mundane existences as people of minimal importance within their communities. In that sense, it is no different to any of the other gangland outfits plaguing many societies across the globe.

There may come a point soon at which elements of the UVF leadership declare the organisation to be formally dissolved, and some degree of fanfare may even be orchestrated to welcome such a development.

But the evident failure of loyalists to actively lead the process of genuinely transitioning their gangs out of existence by educating and giving direction to the grassroots members – including those too young to have any memories of the conflict period – will almost certainly mean that the scourge of paramilitarism and associated criminality will continue regardless for many years ahead, with working class communities suffering the most.