Paramilitary gangs embedded within Northern Ireland’s divided communities pose “a clear and present danger” to commit violence fed by post-Brexit tensions, according to an expert report.
The British and Irish governments jointly published Tuesday’s findings by the Independent Reporting Commission, a panel formed five years ago as part of wider efforts to sustain Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration.
The experts’ primary goal is to recommend ways to promote the disbandment of these groups: IRA splinter groups on the Irish nationalist side, and so-called loyalist groups on the British unionist side.
But the report found that Brexit, and the EU checks now required on British goods arriving in Northern Irish ports, had given loyalist militants in particular a new motivation for violence.
It cited recent police briefings and academic studies indicating loyalist paramilitary members oversaw rioting in April, as well as the more recent hijacking and torching of two buses in Belfast suburbs.
“Reaction to Brexit, including the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, has led to new complexities and increasing prominence of paramilitarism,” the report found.
The report didn’t assign explicit responsibility for this violence. But most of the rioting and destruction has occurred in working-class Protestant areas under the influence of the outlawed Ulster Defence Association, where ubiquitous graffiti and posters demand an end to “the Irish Sea border” created by the protocol.
The four-member panel — including former U.S. President George W. Bush’s envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss — appealed for formally structured negotiations with the outlawed groups.
“Paramilitarism remains a clear and present danger. The disbandment of paramilitary organizations has to involve voluntary action by the groups and therefore their cooperation,” they wrote. “We believe that a dedicated, formal process of engagement with an end goal of disbandment is required.”
Various IRA factions killed more than 2,100 people and loyalist groups more than 1,000 people during the three-decade conflict over Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles.” These opposed paramilitary camps have officially observed cease-fires since the mid-1990s and surrendered most of their weapons in the decade following the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.
But as Tuesday’s report detailed, paramilitary chiefs still cast an intimidating shadow in many working-class areas, where locals fear to speak openly against them.
“Their continued presence constitutes a live and unacceptable risk, and holds entire communities back,” the experts said.
They called on the U.K. and Irish governments to jointly create “a formal body” that would work with representatives from each paramilitary group to achieve their voluntary disbandment.
Key “milestones” on that path would include ending recruitment of new members, stopping “coercive power and control in communities,” disposing of weapons caches and permitting members to resign “without cost or consequence.”
The experts said this year’s street violence mostly in loyalist areas has “shown how problematic the continuation of paramilitarism is for society. Our concern is that the situation will deteriorate further if action of the kind we describe is not taken now.”