Tough loyalist talk needs to be matched by actions

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On October 13, 2015 – the 21st anniversary of the CLMC ceasefire announcement – the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando issued a joint declaration of intent.

Under the title Unfinished Work, they said: “We are recommitting to the principles of the Belfast Agreement. We eschew all violence and criminality. If there are those who attempt to use current or past associations with our organisations to further criminality they will be disowned and should be aware that they will not be permitted to use the cover of loyalism. We expect the authorities to take whatever steps are necessary to deal with any offenders. Anyone misusing loyalism for criminal purposes should be held accountable to the criminal justice system.”

Loyalist leaders and churchmen at last week's announcement where paramilitary groups 'eschewed all violence and criminality'

Loyalist leaders and churchmen at last week's announcement where paramilitary groups 'eschewed all violence and criminality'

It was, as I noted at the time, an important and timely announcement; but, as I also noted, in PR terms it was primarily a pre-emptive strike. About a week later an assessment, which had been commissioned by the secretary of state, on the ‘structure, role and purpose of paramilitary groups’ was published. This concluded: “It is our firm assessment that the leadership ... of the UVF, RHC and UDA ... are committed to transforming the purpose of the (groups) from violent crime to community-focused initiatives but have only limited control over the activities of (their) membership. In some cases members are heavily involved in violence and crime.”

I read the statement of intent as a genuine effort (and, let’s not forget that it had heavyweight support from Jonathan Powell and David Campbell) to narrow and eventually close the huge gap between that damning ‘assessment’ for the secretary of state and the intended direction of movement from the three paramilitary organisations. I decided to give the project a fair wind. I had talked to key players – as well as to ordinary loyalists with no links to any of those groups – who persuaded me that ‘good work’ was being done and that ‘genuine efforts’ were being made to transform and rebuild.

On October 16, 2015, I wrote: “Loyalism should not be a dirty, scary word: yet the actions – many of them ongoing – of minority paramilitary groups who use the word for their own ends has succeeded in creating the perception that loyalism is bad and that loyalists are somehow beyond the pale. There is important work to be done and someone needs to do it. But the biggest challenge of all will be changing the perceptions and closing down the criminal structures and activities which are presently destroying the communities they say need rebuilt.”

Last Tuesday the same three groups issued A Loyalist Declaration of Transformation. They reassert their commitment to the peace process; talk of having “ownership and control of their own future”; of wanting to “make an important contribution” to peace and stability and “fully support the rule of law in all areas of life and emphatically condemn all forms of criminal activity”. Also: “We reject and repudiate as unacceptable and contrary to loyalist principles any criminal action claimed to have been undertaken in our name or attributed to any individual claiming membership of one of our organisations. We further declare that any engagement in criminal acts by any individuals within our organisations will be regarded as placing those persons outside the memberships. This has been collectively agreed.”

Good. But not good enough at this stage of the game. If, as I suspect, it’s true that they have lost control of individuals and whole groups, then they must hand over the problem to the PSNI. And that means handing over names, locations and any available evidence. If they want the ordinary people in the loyalist community (and there are tens of thousands of them) to trust them – maybe even vote for them at some point – then they have to be seen to be siding with them against the criminals.

The UDA’s Jackie McDonald said: “Personally I cannot see what any genuine loyalist in this country, what problem they would have with this statement. Anyone outside loyalism calling themselves a loyalist will have massive problems with it. We are genuine.”

Yet expelling someone from any of these groups can’t be enough in itself – particularly if the expulsion is only going to follow arrest by the PSNI and subsequent conviction. Much of this ‘criminal’ activity is ongoing precisely because ordinary people are afraid to go to the PSNI. More than anything else it is the criminal activity of those groups and individuals which does the most damage to the overall perception of loyalism; and in doing that damage it also does incalculable damage to the efforts of the UDA/RHC/UVF to be seen to have moved from conflict to post-conflict mode.

I can understand the argument for keeping the names and structures of these organisations; if only because it will stop others from claiming them. But there is a very obvious problem, in that both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ members seem to exist under and within the same banners and structures; one faction trying to shift from the old ways, while the other is up to its neck in assorted crime. That situation is not sustainable. The ‘bad’ ones need to be kicked out right now.

Rev Norman Hamilton, one of three clergy speaking at the event, said: “I think it is widely accepted that the hoped-for peace dividend really has not materialised in so many of what I call ‘urban’ communities. While that remains the case, the lure of aggressive paramilitarism will inevitably remain. These communities do not function in what might be called a ‘normal’ way. That needs to change – and be changed.”

Norman is right. Thirty months ago it was about intent. Last Tuesday it was about transformation. It actually needs to be about being seen to do something. Now.