By Jamie Bryson
The Fourth IRC report published today (07 December 2021) contains some perceptive analysis and positive recommendations, however it continues to be infected with the inherent imbalance whereby loyalism is the sole focus of a ‘process’ which fundamentally criminalises loyalists and legitimises republicans.
The Paramilitary Crime Task Force (‘PCTF’) is a political creature; it was born out of the Fresh Start political agreement. Incredibly however, despite that political deal flowing from two IRA murders, the PCTF in their own words “do not investigate PIRA”.
There has never been a satisfactory explanation for that effective grant of immunity to PIRA, inclusive of a complete failure to investigate or explore the extensive white collar crime- such as businesses created on foot of Northern Bank money- carried out by the republican movement.
The PSNI have sought at times to create a distinction between ‘Paramilitary’ and ‘terrorist’ (those they say pose a national security threat). This distinction is entirely artificial and is no more than a convenient way of ensuring the apparatus of the PCTF is not directed at IRA, and thus serves the Fresh Start Agreement’s pre-determined political purpose (inherent within the very concept of the ‘peace process’) of criminalisation of loyalist communities in parallel to the legitimsation of the republican movement.
All ‘paramilitary’ organisations are proscribed under the Terrorism Act. There is no distinction; there are only proscribed groups, and non-proscribed groups. As such the creation of a distinct category of ‘paramilitary’ groups (in effect everyone except the IRA) is nothing more than an act of political convenience, rooted in dishonesty and deception.
The PCTF’s agenda also contradicts some of that which is set out in the IRC report. At 1.10 in the report, the panel set out their analysis (which is largely accurate) as to the ‘complex landscape’ underpinning paramilitarism in Northern Ireland today.
It is acknowledged (and I think this is a fair assessment in some respects) by the panel that some people simply seek to use organisations as badges of convenience for criminal activity. That finding however sits alongside the position that there are many people who have affiliation and/or involvement with conflict-linked organisations for purely political and ideological reasons.
If this analysis of the panel is accepted, and it is hard to see how the PSNI could credibly disagree, then it raises significant questions for the approach of the PCTF in regularly issuing statements which labels entire loyalist groups as being ‘linked’ to a whole manner of crime. These bare assertions (which in any event are often wholly inaccurate or based upon the most tenuous connection) entirely evade the ‘complex landscape’ as set out by the IRC (see paragraph 1.10 of Fourth Report).
If the PSNI reject the ‘complex landscape’ finding, then it is for them to say why they do so. For example, is the PSNI’s counter argument that there is no ‘complex landscape’, and loyalism is inherently criminal (this point will be developed infra). If they however accept the premise set out in paragraph 1.10 of the IRC report, then their media approach is unsustainable.
In short, the PCTF further entrench the problems inherent within the ‘complex landscape’ by using a broad brush to criminalise entire groups, largely based upon the individual actions of a small number of people. That is not conducive to the apparent objectives of facilitating transition; rather it appears rooted in a fundamental objective of criminalising loyalism in its entirety.
Following on from this theme, the PCTF has recently began buttressing their broad-brush criminalisation by using inflammatory language in their statements such as labelling loyalists as being engaged in ‘Human Rights abuse’. This strikes me as the kind of hyperbolic phrase dreamt up by an ambitious officer keen to succeed in the next round of promotions. That kind if language is wholly inconsistent with the complexities set out in paragraph 1.10 of the IRC report, and is entirely unhelpful in regards the overall process of transition and re-integration (and there must be re-integration- when groups ‘go away’, the critical mass of same do not actually go to a desert island).
It is trite to point out the PSNI are regularly found by the Courts to have breached their section 6 (1) Human Rights Act duties by not acting in a manner compliant with Human Rights (such as, for example, unlawful searches breaching Article 8 ECHR). Perhaps we should all start calling the PSNI ‘Human Rights abusers’.
If the PSNI genuinely want to rebuild trust and confidence in loyalist communities, then they must grapple with the ‘complex landscape’ theory and cease tarring all of loyalism with the brush of criminality. If they want to dial down the rhetoric- on both sides- then they must show themsleves willing to do so. To say that ‘all loyalists are criminals because membership of proscribed organisations is a crime’ may be a good technical legal point, but it is entirely divorced from reality in Northern Ireland.
To take one example, the PSNI Chief Constable and senior commanders regularly meet (and pose for photos) with IRA terrorists such as Harry Maguire and Sean ‘Spike’ Murray. They do not broad brush those persons as criminals. The fact they do not do so completely shatters the theory set out supra which suggests alleged membership is enough to warrant criminalisation; not in the context of Northern Ireland it is not, it seems.
This appears to be implicitly acknowledged by the IRC panel in so far as they advocate a ‘transition’ process. That process requires grappling with all kinds of complex issues, but the core fundamental point that there should be a pathway for loyalism to ‘transition’ and ‘re-integrate’ is to be welcomed. The alternative is perpetual demonisation, criminalisation and isolation.
If that objective is to be achieved, then the present approach of the PCTF- and others within civic society and the political class- is entirely obstructive. You can not have a genuine pathway for reintegration whilst at the same time a policy of broad-brush criminalisation and demonisation. This is either not understood, or wilfully ignored.
By way of coda, it would be remiss not to point out (again) how this discussion is framed within some media- most notably BBC TalkBack (known as ‘TalkNationalist’ amongst even moderate unionists). The focus is entirely on loyalists, with scant mention of republicans, and most certainly no critical analysis of the complete absence of policing activity targeting the IRA.
It seems to be that ‘TalkNationalist’ is now beyond redemption, but it would be welcome if other genuinely impartial media outlets properly grappled with the relevant issues.
There are genuine issues set out in this article for the PSNI to address. I would publicly (again) open this platform up for the PSNI to engage with the complex questions (canvassed in this article) flowing from the IRC report.