By Jamie Bryson
Last week I, with a number of other loyalists and community representatives, attended a public meeting as part of the Communities In Transition (CIT) project.
This project flows from the Fresh Start agreement, which was set up in response to an internal Provisional IRA feud which had seen two murders on the streets of Belfast. The agreement also brought into being the Paramilitary Crime Task Force (PCTF), which has yet to carry out a single search, arrest or investigation in relation to PIRA, instead focusing the vast majority of their resources on targeting loyalist communities.
Let me set out very clearly, lest anyone seek to deliberately misrepresent me, that I am entirely opposed to criminality in all its forms. If anyone is involved in crime then they should face the full rigours of the criminal justice system. If the PSNI are pursuing criminals for being involved in crime, I support this, but you cannot simply give unequivocal and uncritical support to the PSNI, or the PCTF. This then removes all scope for accountability and criticism, and that is an absurd position to take.
The legitimate pursuit of crime must be fair, balanced and equitable. There are many within loyalism that have serious concerns that when it comes to the PCTF that everyone is not being treated equally under the law, and held equally subject to the law. It would be a grave strategic, and moral, error to simply give carte blanche support to the PCTF and thus remove any ability to critically analyse policing operations.
It is a widely held view that quite often propaganda and political convenience is driving their investigations; this is a point I have repeatedly made in public forums to senior PSNI officers, almost all of whom have accepted that at the very least there is a perception that loyalism is being singled out. Despite this I still don’t feel there has been a proper robust public debate on these issues, and I think the PSNI should open themselves up to such a challenge.
The CIT report focused on a small area of North Down; namely Kilcooley, Clandeboye and Rathgill. It is, in my view, an entirely misconceived and contrived effort to misrepresent the views of these communities. The outworking of this is a document that reads like a de-facto manifesto for the Alliance party.
The document made many outlandish claims, based it seems upon conversations with a select number of individuals. Despite being heavily focused on the loyalist community, it appears the majority of the consultation took place with persons from outside the relevant communities and singularly failed to properly engage with loyalist groups in the local area. The small amount of loyalist engagement that did take place was shoehorned onto overarching discussions about wider issues, and even then the views and concerns raised by loyalists about the fatally flawed CIT process were not reflected in the report in any shape or form.
Almost all of those who spoke up at last week’s event raised concerns about the process that lead to the publication of this report. Community representatives from Rathgill asked who was actually consulted, given no effort had been made to contact their community network which represents all groups active in their community. Similar arguments were made by representatives of Kilcooley Women’s Centre and other local community groups.
NIHE area manager Owen Brady spoke up to urge caution and was critical of the lack of engagement with community groups doing good work in the areas this report focused on. Speaking as the local manager of the statutory agency which engages most in the local community, Mr Brady felt the report was not reflective of his experiences in Kilcooley and Rathgill.
The Alliance Party had previously sought to use the report’s findings as a stick with which to beat loyalist communities, demanding that Council adopt all the recommendations. I forensically quizzed the NI Executive Office representative as to the standing of the report and extracted a vital concession; namely that the recommendations were “not set in stone” and that the process was “ongoing”. Therefore the attempts by the Alliance party to force a local Council to adopt fatally flawed recommendations, which it has now been revealed are only preliminary findings with the process still ongoing, looks increasingly desperate and idiotic on their part.
One of the areas of greatest concern in this report is the inclusion of flags and bonfires. This is a report which purports to “tackle paramilitarism”, therefore by inextricably linking cultural expression to paramilitarism the objective is patently obvious; to further criminalise cultural expression via the backdoor. Is it any wonder the Alliance party, whose main aim is to neutralise and/or eradicate all expressions of unionist culture and identity, would be so pleased with this report?
Only one community worker, from a non-loyalist community group based in Newtownards (which is not part of the report’s geographical scope) spoke in favour of the report. This contribution can be summarised as basically (these are my words) ‘I don’t care what it says so long as I get funding. I got funding from SIF and I don’t care that process was flawed. I want Co-Operation Ireland to know I am a safe pair of hands willing to go along with anything to receive funding, so please pick me when you are dishing out the cash’.
This report devotes itself to talking about loyalism, yet singularly failed to speak to loyalism or reflect loyalist concerns. It hoists the views of the Alliance party and those of their ilk above the views of ordinary members of the community in the geographical areas it purports to analyse. It is political in nature and driven towards a pre-determined outcome.
The scathing reaction the report received not just from loyalists, but from community groups, women’s groups, restorative justice groups, NIHE and youth groups tells its own story. It is unreflective of genuine community viewpoints, it seeks to criminalise culture and perhaps worst of all, it allows the views of the self-appointed liberal elite to dictate recommendations for communities in which the Alliance party are viewed as simply a more moderate version of Sinn Fein.
The report, and all its recommendations, should be deposited in the nearest dustbin or better still, flung into the flames of a bonfire on 11 July 2019.