Leading article

Paramilitary groups must be consigned to history

As this week's despicable threats made to Catholic families living in a shared housing development in south Belfast sharply demonstrate, tackling the malign influence of paramilitaries in our society is a task of crucial importance.

The disturbing events in Cantrell Close, off the Ravenhill Road, which saw four families forced to leave their homes, came in the same week as details were disclosed of a police crackdown on paramilitary activity and also as a panel set up to monitor efforts to stamp out these illegal organisations began its work.

A Paramilitary Crime Taskforce was established as part of the Fresh Start Agreement with a budget of £5 million over five years.

This has allowed the PSNI to build a team of specialists to deal with the type of criminality associated with paramilitaries, including extortion, intimidation, assaults, drug dealing and money laundering.

This team, with the support of the National Crime Agency and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, has carried out almost 100 arrests and 200 searches with 66 people being charged or reported to the Public Prosecution Service.

Furthermore, £450,000 in criminal assets, including cash, drugs and a Range Rover, have been seized or restrained.

A machine gun, ammunition, pipe bombs and other weapons have also been taken off the streets.

Although there is clearly a long way to go in terms of shutting down the full tangled web of paramilitary criminality, these figures show that progress is being made.

The Independent Reporting Commission is also part of the Fresh Start initiative aimed at stamping out the paramilitary gangsters.

Anyone interested in building a stable and peaceful society wants to see the thugs and bully boys who exert control over entire districts consigned to the past.

Unfortunately, almost twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement, these illegal organisations not only continue to exist but at times appear to act with impunity.

Asked about community workers involved in paramilitary activity, Chief Constable George Hamilton said some people are `community workers and people of positive influence by day and some are involved in criminality by night.'

This is plainly an unacceptable situation. Either people are wholeheartedly wedded to lawful engagement or they are not and anyone who breaks the law must be held to account.

Mr Hamilton's comment is illuminating and confirms what many people believe.

But if we are to move on and become a normal society there can be no ambivalence about the attitude of the authorities towards criminal gangs.

We need to rid our society of paramilitary groups and acknowledge the damage they have done and continue to do.

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