Twenty-Five Years After the Agreement: Loyalist Groups and Organised Crime

Dominic Bryan and Brendan Sturgeon of Queen’s University Belfast lay out the complexity of dealing with the remnants of major Loyalist ‘paramilitary’ groups and argue that treating it only as an organised crime problem is insufficient.

In many respects the peace process in Northern Ireland has been successful. Most obviously there is overwhelming support for political processes over the use of force. After agreements in 1998 and 2006 weapons were removed from the streets as the British Army stood down its policing duties and the major Republican and Loyalist groups decommissioned weapons. Admittedly, the structure of the Executive has struggled to sustain shared government for significant spells over that time, but the broad instructional parameters around shared power, shared space human rights and equality laid out in the 1998 Agreement are widely accepted.

So why do groups that are colloquially known as ‘paramilitaries’ continue to exist? Attacks on police from Republican groups have taken place with irregular constancy over the last decades. Loyalist groups have continued to organise, recruit, retain significant coercive control in a number of working-class protestant areas, organise small street protests and appear to have influence on Unionist political parties, particularly the Democratic Unionist Party. Images of violence and flags of proscribed organisations are common across Northern Ireland.

In many ways the threat to the peace process remains low. Even a cursory comparison with the period from 1969 to 2000 suggests the ability of these groups to severely destabilise daily life is much reduced. Compare the impact of Loyalist groups during the Workers Strike (1974), The Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985-87), parade disputes (1995-98), flag protests (2012-13) and the Brexit-Protocol protests (2021-23). The ability of Loyalist groups to impact the wider stability of society and economy in Northern Ireland has become increasingly marginal.

It is important to remember that one of the reasons for relative peace over twenty-five years is the effort of former combatants, both Republican and Loyalists, working alongside each other, and within the areas that they hold legitimacy. Again, take a look at a range of potential ‘hot spots’ of activity and compare with the last decades of the 20th century. There remains continued negative publicity around the funding of people ‘close to the paramilitaries’, funding which, by its very nature, is risky, but of course the newspapers rarely tell the stories of areas which have seen significant social development.

Since the Fresh Start Agreement in November 2015, Government policy has concentrated on the Tackling Paramilitarism Programme (now called Executive programme for tackling paramilitary activity and organised crime) and the 43 wide ranging recommendations made by the Fresh Start Panel report on the Disbandment of Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland. Recommendations included help for individuals, groups and communities to ‘transition’, a focus upon young people around mentoring and restorative justice, particular support for women’s groups engaged in transformative activities and a sustained policing approach for tackling the organised crime embedded in most of the groups. An Independent Reporting Commission was also set up to produce annual reports on the implementation of measures.

Whilst there are ample examples of good work there is also little sign that paramilitary groups are leaving the scene. In areas where Republicanism is influential the transformation is still highly significant. Without going into a long explanation, and putting it very simply, the Provisional IRA stopped recruiting, handed the baton to Sinn Féin and moved many of its people into politics, community work, cultural spheres and business. They understood the need to engage across society. Just look at the role tourism plays in both west Belfast and the Bogside. They sustained their ideological position but effectively traded guns for social and political capital. Even among those Republican groups not aligned with Sinn Féin there is evidence of a move into politics, although some still offer a threat of violence.

Loyalist paramilitary groups, whilst deeply embedded and remaining active in communities, lack a political route forward, lack any apparent mechanism for transition, and are hampered by the disarray caused within unionism by Brexit. In this context, organised crime can flourish with the legitimacy of the ‘Ulster Defence Association’ and the ‘Ulster Volunteer Force’ as cover. Groups that express their loyalty with pictures of the monarch, the poppy, and World War 1 soldiers are also fighting turf wars over drugs.

This complexity exists because what we call paramilitaries are social groups that are deeply embedded within society. How many organised crime groups get to fly flags, march in parades and paint murals remembering their dead? These groups of males exert coercive control in distinct territories with ‘big men’ competing for legitimacy. The legitimacy is born out of an ability to deliver services including policing functions which some in those areas appreciate. The legitimacy is born out of family and friendship networks that provide a form of community-based policing and the delivery of social services. In this sense, ‘protection’ is not a racket, it is experienced by some people in those areas as providing safety. The legitimacy is underpinned by a historic claim to sacrifice in defence of Britishness that appears authorised through a link with two world wars within their own historic chronology. This is all publicly acknowledged through their relatively unfettered use of war memorials, poppies, flags, parades and murals. And yes, it is legitimised by any numbers of funding schemes and the work of numerous agencies of state.

Have no doubt, Loyalists in many areas have moved into service delivery, community work and peace building. The shift so successfully made by mainstream Republicanism can be seen in the work of Loyalists in Protestant working class areas. Funding for such projects remains crucial. But Loyalism has been unable to convert its legitimacy into political representation; it is fettered by a horribly ambiguous relationship with Unionist political parties; wracked by a weak ‘big man’ authority structure leading to splits and turf wars; significantly funded through organised crime; and a victim of years of perfidious Albion under a Tory Government whose interests lie in England. And of course, many of the areas in which Loyalism suffer from the economic marginalisation common in much of Northern Ireland.

It is no good approaching this problem simply under the banner of dealing with organised crime. The wide ranging approach of the Executive programme for tackling paramilitary activity and organised crime, and the funding provided, is a reflection of the embedded nature of these groups in our society. Although, when it comes to the legitimisation of Loyalist groups, that projects are pulling in more than one direction. However, patient and consistent responses are required alongside the work of the justice system.

There is no easy answer and it remains important that we do not further marginalise Loyalism or non-aliened Republicanism or the people who live on those areas. Perhaps the one policy option that has not yet been fully explored is demobilisation or a process of transition. At some point we need to be able to remove groups as ‘proscribed organisations’. Only then do we perhaps create clarity between legitimate political organisation and organised crime.

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