Opinion

East Belfast UVF is being 'stood down'. But why aren't all paramilitaries being put out of business?

The Irish News: Instead of the authorities engaging with illegal organisations, it is time for the paramilitaries to engage with the law and stand down

The east Belfast leadership of the UVF, which is heavily linked to the drug trade and other criminality, has been ordered to step aside
The east Belfast leadership of the UVF, which is heavily linked to the drug trade and other criminality, has been ordered to step aside The east Belfast leadership of the UVF, which is heavily linked to the drug trade and other criminality, has been ordered to step aside

It is an unwelcome sign of our increasingly dysfunctional society that an illegal paramilitary organisation can publicly announce changes to its east Belfast leadership without any significant reaction from those in political or policing authority.

A similar announcement in Britain or the Republic would trigger widespread condemnation and an immediate political reaction. However, the UVF's statement has been received by the authorities here as if it were nothing more than a business firm announcing the appointment of a new chief executive.

Although the UVF is on the UK's terrorist organisation list, it appears to be beyond the rule of law. There is no obvious action plan by the PSNI to disrupt the organisation's paramilitary activity, as evidenced by the absence of significant legal proceedings in the courts.

There also appears to be little political will to tackle the problem. The main political initiative was the creation of the Independent Reporting Commission, as part of the Fresh Start Agreement in 2015.

It is charged with reporting on progress towards ending paramilitary activity. Less than a year ago it reported that, "there has been good progress in several of the initiatives being developed" to end the problem.

However, a different perspective was delivered last month at Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Dr Aaron Edwards, a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, said there were now more loyalist paramilitaries today than there were 30 years ago.

This raises questions about the effectiveness of the Independent Reporting Commission, despite its claim that "a whole new infrastructure has been put in place to tackle" the issue.

It might reasonably be asked if a more productive approach would involve less infrastructure and more tackling.

The process of attempting to end paramilitarism has usually been described as 'transitioning'. However, it is difficult to understand why the well-funded transition to peace should be no nearer completion 25 years after it began.

The approach of 'engaging' with paramilitaries and paying them to stand down has merely encouraged their existence. In the Westminster budget in March, for example, the Chancellor allocated an additional £3 million for tackling paramilitarism.

At a time of massive cuts to key services such as health, education and welfare, it is increasingly difficult to justify the process of effectively bribing criminals to behave.

It is time for a new approach to tackling paramilitaries by emphasising the law rather than tolerating the illegal. Instead of the authorities engaging with illegal organisations, it is time for the paramilitaries to engage with the law and stand down.

Until that happens, our police and our politicians will be seen as siding more with the paramilitaries than with their victims. That is an intolerable situation which must end immediately.