The BBC’s Spotlight programme recently investigated a murky tale of intimidation and the relationships between paramilitaries and the authorities, in Bangor.
When unwanted flags were erected in Clandeboye Estate, the police, council officials and politicians advised residents’ representatives to negotiate with a local UDA commander for their removal.
The documentary revealed the extent to which paramilitaries still exert an influence on loyalist areas and how funding finds its way to the community organisations they direct.
None of this is very surprising, though it is not often reported in such detail.
Not only do paramilitaries continue to exist; to an extent the ‘peace process’ was built upon entrenching the influence of these groups and their proxies within loyalist and republican neighbourhoods.
The old tactics of intimidation and violence may have been supplemented by a plethora of residents’ associations, cultural societies and community workers, all funded by public money, but many of the same people are in charge and on the payroll.
There are initiatives which purportedly aim to dilute their influence, or help the organisations to disappear completely.
The Fresh Start Agreement, brokered after a murder was linked to the Provisional IRA, sets up a panel to advise the Executive on disbanding paramilitary structures and an Independent Reporting Commission, to monitor the groups’ activities.
It has attracted controversy already, as Deputy First Minister and onetime IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, gets to nominate members of the commission.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, worked with loyalists to form a ‘Communities Council’ (LCC), which aims to bring groups “in from the cold”.
There is justifiable cynicism about its goals and chances of success. The LCC is raising cash to ‘transform’ loyalist areas. Is it simply another way of directing cash toward former and current paramilitaries?
In republican communities, the provisional movement used its stranglehold to cultivate a political mandate, whereas loyalists failed to move beyond community organisations. However, in both cases their authority remains underwritten by paramilitary structures still in existence and possessing a potential for violence.
Until paramilitaries, past and present, are seen as a cautionary tale in our society, rather than sources of authority, aspirational figures or romantic heroes, communities will remain in their grip.
The biggest challenge is to counter versions of history which promote the idea that violence was justified or anything other than a horrific failure. That means ensuring that public money goes directly into benefitting communities, rather than paying paramilitary members and former members, or funding projects which glorify their bloody past.
• Owen Polley is a freelance writer and policy consultant