Time for paramilitary groups to fade away

More than two decades since the ceasefires and with peace largely a reality rather than an aspiration, the continuing presence of paramilitary organisations remains a source of considerable disquiet in today's Northern Ireland.

The unjustified and indefensible campaign of violence by republican dissidents is an obvious concern. Those with malign intent and scant support continue to kill, maim, terrorise and intimidate.

Their victims not only include police and prison staff but also civilians in their own districts as we saw with the brutal killing of Michael McGibbon in Ardoyne.

Aside from the dissidents, it is disturbing to be told that other paramilitary groups are involved in recruitment.

Why are these illegal organisations seeking to swell their ranks? More to the point, why are they still in existence?

This week saw the publication of a report drawn up by a panel comprising Lord Alderdice, Monica McWilliams and John McBurney, which was commissioned by the secretary of state following the murders of republicans Gerard `Jock' Davison and Kevin McGuigan.

There will always be a degree of scepticism about just how much difference such reports make in the long term but it is important to reflect on the role of paramilitaries in our society and challenge accepted attitudes and behaviour.

In this regard, the report makes a significant recommendation about the way in which the PSNI engages with paramilitary figures, particularly during parades or times of disorder.

The panel notes there may be some `tactical' reasons for this dialogue, but adds: ``However, in a lawful democratic society this engagement by the state with members of illegal organisations cannot become a permanent norm as, ultimately, it undermines the development of a culture of lawfulness.''

This is a crucial point although it has to be acknowledged that any process of disengagement would inevitably present difficulties.

But if we are to build a normal society with a `culture of lawfulness', then the influence of the paramilitaries must fade and ultimately disappear, hopefully sooner rather than later.