Police “engage” with paramilitaries, rather than arrest them, report confirms

Last month PSNI officers handed out leaflets in west Belfast as a protest was held against paramilitary attacks.
 Picture: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Last month PSNI officers handed out leaflets in west Belfast as a protest was held against paramilitary attacks. Picture: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

A government report has confirmed what many observers have long suspected – that the PSNI chooses to “engage” with some known paramilitaries, rather than arresting them for membership of a proscribed organisation.

The report on the disbandment of paramilitary groups , which was published with little warning this afternoon, states that the PSNI engage with either current or former paramilitaries to deal with issues such as parade disputes, anti-social behaviour and questions around flags.

The report, by solicitor John McBurney, former Alliance leader Lord Alderdice and former Chief Human Rights Commissioner Monica McWilliams recommends that such engagement “undermines the development of a culture of lawfulness”.

The report said that some current or former paramilitaries “exert coercive control in communities based on their paramilitary status.

“These individuals are often regarded as gatekeepers because their influence in communities enables them to deliver outcomes.

“This even affects the police who engage with the individuals concerned to ensure peaceful outcomes to parading disputes and other issues, including flags and anti-social behaviour even though they are members of proscribed organisations.”

The report went on to say: “we recognise that limited tactical dialogue with representatives of paramilitary groups has been an important and effective means of keeping the peace in some communities.

“We also recognise that this cannot change at once. However, in a lawful democratic society this engagement by the state with members of illegal organisations cannot become a permanent norm as, ultimately, it undermines the development of a culture of lawfulness.

“We recommend that the Executive and the PSNI, in conjunction with the Policing Board, should review their protocols for engaging with representatives of paramilitary groups.”

The report’s authors said that they were “struck by the lack of confidence in the criminal justice system in some communities who regard it as being ineffective in tackling criminality linked to members of groups”, with “perceptions that some individuals are ‘untouchable’”.

They also said that “disillusionment with the slow pace of the justice system or seemingly lenient sentences can mean that people are less likely to cooperate with the justice system, with some people still turning to paramilitaries for more immediate redress”.

The PSNI was asked why they engage with known paramilitaries rather than arresting them.

Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin said: “The Police Service is prepared to engage with those who can constructively assist us in keeping people safe.

“We are also committed to investigating and pursuing those involved in crime.

“The reality of policing in a post conflict and divided society is that sometimes challenging conversations need to take place. Our Code of Ethics and our statutory obligations guide us in such engagements.

“The PSNI actively engaged with the Independent Panel and we look forward to constructive conversations on their findings. There is no place for paramilitary organisations in our society and the PSNI will fully play its part in a comprehensive, cross departmental strategy to achieve this outcome.”