Watchdog ‘frustrated’ over lack of progress in tackling paramilitaries

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A terror gang watchdog has expressed frustration at the amount of progress in tackling their activities in Northern Ireland.

Ministers have not been at their desks at Stormont since early last year and in the meantime crime lords have been behind a catalogue of attacks, racketeering and intimidation.

Paramilitarism has affected almost half of Northern Ireland’s communities and more work needs to be done to disrupt gangs which retain influence 20 years after the conflict largely ended, the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) concluded.

The organisation established by the British and Irish Governments following concerns about lingering paramilitarism said the lack of ministers has had an impact.

Member and former US envoy to Northern Ireland Mitchell Reiss said: “It has been a little frustrating to see that more progress on ending paramilitarism has not been made.

“It has now been 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

“All of us hoped that this scourge on these communities would have gone away by now.”

The report said paramilitary incidents recently occurred in 218 local council wards out of 462.

Nine of the 10 most deprived wards contained at least one indicator of paramilitary activity, which can range from assaults to painted wall murals which glorify the role of the gunmen.

The report said: “Some 20 years after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, paramilitarism remains a stark reality of life in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Reiss added: “Without that certainty, without that (political) leadership, without having truly functioning governance structures in place here, the goal to end paramilitarism is going to lag.”

The problem includes gangsterism and criminality, with some using labels from the conflict as a cloak for their criminal activity.

It also includes those who hold membership of these groups for political or personal reasons but are not actively engaged in criminal activity, the review said.

Another Commission member, lawyer John McBurney, said: “Paramilitarism for many years has been an ugly scaffolding between our communities and around our communities.

“It is a scaffolding that needs to be dismantled.”

The report said there has been a reduction in the number of attacks over the last 20 years.

The Commission was established in summer last year to monitor progress on tackling paramilitary activity following the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement between the governments and the main Stormont parties.

Its other members include former Irish Department of Foreign Affairs official Tim O’Connor and former Women’s Coalition leader Professor Monica McWilliams.

The report said up to £12 million in official funding has been provided to support parts of Belfast and elsewhere which are vulnerable to the influence of paramilitaries.

It warned: “There is also the need to ensure careful and robust governance around funding under this action so that the funding, either directly or indirectly, does not reach the hands of those involved in paramilitary activity and criminality.”

A separate taskforce, established a year ago, combines law enforcement agencies to target organised crime and has recorded a number of successes.

The IRC report said: “The taskforce has made an encouraging start.

“In our 2019 report, we would like to be in a position to show evidence of greater disruption of paramilitary activity alongside the criminal justice outcomes.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said: “Paramilitarism is a scourge on our society.

“It was never justified in the past, it cannot be justified today and these groups should have no place in our society.”

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