Editorial: Ending the scourge of armed groups

It has been impossible in recent weeks to escape the grim reality that paramilitary groups are still exercising their malevolent influence across our community.

The shocking attempt by the New IRA to murder senior detective John Caldwell last month was followed by a despicable threat against police officers' families by another republican group this week.

Meanwhile, the debate around the Northern Ireland Protocol has been accompanied by repeated reports that loyalist paramilitaries are prepared to bring violence to the streets if their expectations are not met.

It paints a depressing picture of progress to end the scourge of paramilitary activity as political leaders prepare to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

While Northern Ireland is in many ways a transformed society, the continued existence of armed groups asks uncomfortable questions of police, politicians and wider civic society.

Small numbers of dissident republicans continue to pose a threat to security services and the general population, while millions poured into 'transition' schemes has failed to stop loyalist gangs engaging in serious criminality.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris said this week he is looking seriously at a proposal for further engagement.

The Independent Reporting Commission, which reports annually on progress towards ending paramilitary activity, recommended in December that in addition to law enforcement and measures addressing socio-economic issues in communities where paramilitaries operate, a "comprehensive and credible process of engagement with the paramilitary groups themselves around group transition, with the aim of disbandment, is now required".

To prepare the ground for a formal process, it was suggested an independent person or people could be appointed to explore the idea with armed groups and other interested parties.

The proposal previously received a lukewarm reception from the British government. However, Mr Heaton-Harris told MPs this week said it was "an interesting idea and one that I have taken seriously". He also revealed the issue had been discussed at recent meetings of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

While engagement with anyone with a sincere wish to loosen the grip of paramilitaries on communities can only be helpful, it is clear that any process involving armed groups would have to be predicated on ending violence and criminality and accompanied by a clear timetable for disbandment.

It is only by finally freeing people from the shadow of paramilitarism that the promise of a peaceful and prosperous future envisaged 25 years ago will be realised.