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Editorial: Step change needed to end scourge of paramilitarism

THE very existence of a body to report on efforts to end paramilitary activity 23 years after the Good Friday Agreement is a depressing verdict on what progress has been achieved.

The Independent Reporting Commission offered another stark warning yesterday that "paramilitarism remains a clear and present danger".

While it does not provide threat assessments, it is known that both loyalist and republican groups remain active and recruiting, with membership of the UVF and UDA last year put as high as 12,500.

And although there has been a general downward trend in security-related incidents over the last decade - with the worrying exception of paramilitary-style assaults - this year witnessed a return of street disorder linked to loyalist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Bus services had to be suspended in some areas last month after vehicles in Newtownabbey and Newtownards were hijacked and set alight. This followed some of the worst rioting for years in April, when clashes at a west Belfast interface saw police injured and petrol bombs thrown.

Dissident republicans, meanwhile, continue to present a threat as they target security forces and exert control in communities.

The IRC said it had been a "mixed and challenging year", with street disorder leading to speculation about the potential for a resurgence of paramilitary activity.

"Overall, we remain deeply worried about the risks posed to society by the continuing existence of paramilitary structures which can be harnessed for the purposes of violence or the threat of violence."

The current response combines policing and justice efforts with a focus on the deep-rooted socio-economic issues in communities where mafia-like groups prey on individuals.

But while much good work is undoubtedly being done on the ground, it cannot be said that significant progress has been made.

The commissioners call for ending paramilitarism to be a high priority in any new programme for government. In addition, they argue for a formal engagement with paramilitary groups with the goal of disbandment, drawing a parallel to the process which led to the Good Friday Agreement.

That historic accord offered the prospect of a new beginning for Northern Ireland based on partnership, reconciliation and a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

If those hopes are ever to be fully realised, and society finally freed from the cancer of paramilitaries, a step change is certainly required in the approach at Stormont.

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