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A formal process aimed at the disbanding of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland has been urged.
The Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) made the call as it noted the continuing existence of paramilitary structures and repeated its warning that paramilitarism remains a “clear and present danger”.
The monitoring body, set up in the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement, noted the disbandment of the groups “has to involve voluntary action … and therefore their co-operation”.
“We propose that a dedicated, formal process of engagement with an end goal of disbandment be taken forward,” the four commissioners – John McBurney, Tim O’Connor, Monica McWilliams and Mitchell Reiss – urged.
They have also called on the Northern Ireland Executive to make tackling paramilitarism a high priority, describing political leadership as “key”.
Their fourth report, published on Tuesday, noted a “challenging year” which included scenes of disorder at a peace line in west Belfast in April sparked by demonstrations against the Brexit protocol.
The commissioners described “new complexities” and the “increasing prominence of paramilitarism”.
Unionists and loyalists remain opposed to the post-Brexit arrangements, regarding additional checks on goods arriving into the region from Great Britain as a border in the Irish Sea.
The IRC was set up following a commitment by the UK and Irish governments along with the Northern Ireland Executive to bring paramilitarism to an end once and for all.
It is mandated to report on progress towards reaching that goal and make recommendations on what more should be done.
In a statement following its fourth report, the commissioners said they are encouraged by good work being undertaken.
But they said they remain concerned at 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.
“This has been a challenging year: reaction to Brexit, including the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, which has led to new complexities, and increasing prominence of paramilitarism,” they said.
“Disorder on the streets in the spring and autumn have led to speculation about the potential for a resurgence of paramilitary activity.
“The goal of tackling paramilitarism must be assigned a high priority in any new Programme for Government for the Executive. Political leadership will be key.”
The commissioners said policing and justice measures alone are not enough to bring paramilitarism to an end.
They have called for a “wider, more holistic approach that includes tackling the deep and systemic socio-economic issues facing communities, and in particular those communities where paramilitary control is strongest”.
“This twin track approach is crucial to comprehensively tackling paramilitarism,” they said.
“In our second and third reports we gave prominence to our view that to those two tracks should be added a further dimension, namely that to end paramilitarism we also need an agreed formal process of group transition.
“The disbandment of paramilitary organisations has to involve voluntary action by the groups and therefore their co-operation, and so we propose that a dedicated, formal process of engagement with an end goal of disbandment be taken forward.”
They said that just as political engagement was needed to bring the Troubles to an end, a similar process is needed to “definitively end paramilitarism”.
“We outline our thinking on what steps could be involved in a group transition process in this report, and urge further consideration of it by the two Governments, the Executive and civic society,” they said.
“We are acutely aware of the harm caused by paramilitary activity. Our report highlights good practice from the Executive Programme for Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime and the importance of the whole of Government approach but we also note that further action on specific measures is required.
“In that regard we summarise the progress to date and the gaps that still need to be addressed.
“In summary, our overall view continues to be that paramilitarism remains a clear and present danger.
“New structures have been put in place to tackle paramilitarism, and new approaches are under way but more needs to be done, across all relevant agencies and departments, working alongside local communities.
“Furthermore, we remain of the view that in order to achieve the comprehensive ending of paramilitarism, a process of group transition is required and needs to be added to the twin track approach already being implemented.”
Police Service of Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan welcomed the report.
“We will continue to focus on paramilitary groups and organised crime, building on recent successes of the Paramilitary Crime Task Force, and continue to work with a range of partners including NCA, HMRC, and UKBF,” he said.
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney welcomed the report.
“The report makes clear that, while some progress has been made, many challenges remain,” he said.
“As the commissioners recognise, the twin track approach – incorporating policing and justice measures and a wider approach that deals with systemic issues – is crucial.
“The commissioners have highlighted the complex issues required in ending paramilitarism and I look forward to continuing to engage with them on this in the coming year.”