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Flags and political loyalism January 31, 2013

Posted by smiffy in Loyalism, Northern Ireland, Progressive Unionist Party, The North, Ulster, Uncategorized, Unionism.

Regular readers may be interested in a newly-published book on political loyalism by U.S. academic, Tony Novosel, entitled Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism. published by Pluto books.

Over at the Pluto website, Novosel has published an interesting and timely article, situating the current protests around flags within the context of an historical pattern of the exploitation of working-class loyalist political mobilization by mainstream Unionist parties. While not uncritical of loyalist communities and their political expression, he does give the current situation an important added dimension, going beyond the sometimes easy stereotyping of #flegs.

Shadow of the gunmen… The 17th Independent Monitoring Commission Report and the Southern media narrative on Republicanism. November 8, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Loyalism, Media and Journalism, Republicanism, Unionism.


What a difference a year makes. The IMC issued its 17th Report yesterday. And it makes for interesting reading.

Still, before we come to that, on the Irish Times website yesterday I couldn’t help noticing the following:

Its [the IMC] report on paramilitary activity is also expected to give another positive review of the Provisional IRA’s efforts to keep itself on a peaceful footing.

However the period covered by the report does not include the murder in the Irish Republic two weeks ago of south Armagh man Paul Quinn whose family blamed Provisional IRA members.

“efforts”? In a context where SF Ministers sit in government in the North? Since neither the Gardaí or the PSNI have suggested that PIRA was responsible it seems churlish for the Irish Times to engage in building a narrative beloved of so many elements of the Southern media whereby PIRA is behind every contentious event. This guilt by association angle is enormously effective since it is so difficult to prove otherwise. The interface between criminality, political and paramilitary activity is notoriously opaque. That the media largely unquestioningly follows the most negative line strikes me as self-serving on their part in the extreme. That they latch onto this and yet quite happily ignored a similar nexus between another Republican paramilitary group and a political party in the past is remarkable. And can I reiterate that I write this as someone who would have been harshly critical of the armed campaign at the time. The point is that unlike many many other groups PIRA has moved from armed struggle to political engagement. That doesn’t wipe away the past, but it does suggest that a mixture of pragmatism, understanding and critical engagement is necessary.

Nor does it tally with what the IMC says. Consider the “PARAMILITARY GROUPS: ASSESSMENT OF CURRENT ACTIVITIES”

2.2 Developments over the past year have led us to set out the material on paramilitary organisations in a slightly different way from hitherto, in two respects:
– In our Seventh Report two years ago we noted the then very recent act of decommissioning by PIRA6. Since then we have reported the
progressive and unequivocal implementation of the organisation’s
decision to follow a political path. A year ago we referred to what we described as the organisation’s “transformation”7. Since then there has been other firm evidence, such as the backing for Sinn Féin’s decision in January 2007 to support policing and the criminal justice system8. Sinn FÑOin’s subsequent entry into the Northern Ireland Executive has meant that the provisional movement as a whole has been more
closely engaged in the democratic process. We strongly believe that
this position is now stable. We have therefore decided that we need no longer give an analysis of the organisation’s activities at the same length as we have in the past, and that instead we can properly confine ourselves to a brief summary and to reporting any significant developments. The material on PIRA in paragraphs 2.15-2.16 below is therefore considerably shorter than in our recent reports. We will however continue to monitor PIRA and we will report anything
– In recent reports we have noted the encouraging remarks made by the UDA and UVF and those associated with the organisations. We have also said that the impact on the ground had been limited and that much more needed to be done to end criminality. We refer below to important and encouraging developments on the part of the UVF in the six months under review. Nevertheless, we think that there are some issues which affect both organisations and those associated with them; we address them in paragraphs 4.5-4.8 below.

So we are then to take it that PIRA has essentially shut up shop. The IMC can’t quite say that, hence their point about ‘no longer need give an analysis of the organisation’s activities at the same length’. But the implication is clear. Indeed consider the media narrative and compare and contrast with the threats that the IMC identifies.

These threats come from a number of sources. Under “Dissident Republicans Generally” we are told that a hitherto unknown group Óglaigh na hÉireann (which appears to be a split from the Real IRA) rightly provides a source of concern.

ONH remained active in the six months under review. In July it threw a pipe bomb at Strabane PSNI station which exploded on the roof of adjacent premises. We believe it was responsible for the three explosive devices which were discovered at the houses of District Policing Partnership
members and a PSNI officer in the Strabane area over four days in April 2007; none caused any damage. Members remained engaged in a variety of criminal activities, including drug dealing; we think the proceeds go largely to the perpetrators rather than the organisation. ONH sought to enhance its capability by continuing efforts to recruit members. There are indications that the leadership may seek to address the question of whether they could sustain a continuing and more effective terrorist campaign.

Nor is ONH alone:

We believe that dissidents have sought to target the homes of police officers or others thought to possess weapons, with a view to stealing them. Members of a grouping calling itself the Republic Defence Army, based in the Strabane area, may have been responsible for an assault in May. There was an attempt to achieve greater unity among dissident republicans but in practice the evidence is of more fragmentation.

That this inchoate mixed bag of dissidents are so ineffective is of some comfort to both the (or perhaps the many) communities on this island, and a testament to their marginalisation. But they are proliferating albeit at a low level and they remain extant.

Still, the report also points to some interesting processes amongst the dissidents…

Finally, we are aware of speculation in the media about the possibility of dissident groups calling a ceasefire because of disillusion over their lack of ability to sustain an effective campaign. We do not think that dissident republicans are seriously addressing this as a future strategy, even if some members might be prompted to murmur about a ceasefire because they would be aware of its potential implications for the release of prisoners. We
have no reason at present to expect a broad ranging move or one which would have any very significant impact on the threat that dissidents continue to pose.

So. What of the bigger groups. The CIRA has been involved in the following:

CIRA has been active over the six months under review. It was responsible for two of the three paramilitary murders committed in the period; the victims were both former Belfast members who had established a rival group in the same area. A third person was injured in the same attack. We believe that in Lurgan it was responsible for the construction of a mortar which could have been used against members of the security forces. The device was found in March 2007 before it could be used. CIRA claimed that it was responsible in the Armagh area for throwing a pipe bomb at a police vehicle and petrol bombs at a police building. We do however believe that members monitored police patrols, and the organisation has undertaken targeting, including of PSNI officers and premises. In our view CIRA hoped to carry out attacks in order to disrupt the political process in Northern Ireland but did not bring them to fruition. Members threw petrol bombs and missiles at police officers in the Lurgan area in August. Throughout the six months members have engaged in a wide variety of serious criminal activity North and South, including extortion, drug dealing, robbery, brothel keeping, smuggling and fuel laundering. We believe that although most of the proceeds go to individual members some pass to the organisation.

First up it is only reasonable to suggest that internecine armed actions indicate the worst for any group. That this was due apparently to attempts to establish a ‘rival group’ is cause for even greater concern. The history of the INLA during the 1980s was an almost unbelievable spiral into extreme violence between factions. The effective cul-de-sac that dissident Republicanism appears to be in is exemplified by this sort of activity (and as an aside, is it possible that the effective trouncing that was delivered to dissident political candidates this year has contributed – albeit indirectly – to this). Ally to that the purported range of activities which generate funds and one can only marvel at the pronouncements of some allied to the supposed ‘legitimate’ Republic.

The upshot of this is that:

CIRA has continued its efforts to enhance the organisation’s capability. It sought to recruit members (though with limited success and so far as we are able to establish it has not attracted disillusioned former members of PIRA) and to develop a youth wing; it has attempted to acquire weapons, and it may have tested home made explosives; … We also believe that the 400lb of home made explosive discovered by the PSNI in Craigavon in August 2007 belonged to CIRA.
2.10 CIRA thus remains active, dangerous and committed. It has sought to enhance its long term capability and we believe that it would have undertaken other serious incidents had it been able to do so. As we have said in the past, it is capable of a greater level of violent and other crime.

Now hold on a second. Here we have an organisation that is ‘active, dangerous and committed’. Yet what whisper do we have of this in the Irish media? What sense that this impinges event tangentially upon their musings?

The INLA can reflect upon the suggestion that:

2.12 We believe that INLA was responsible for one of the three paramilitary murders committed during the period under review10. In Belfast, Derry and Strabane members have undertaken patrols to prevent anti-social behaviour, and have acted against a number of alleged drug dealers and others. Members have been heavily involved in a range of serious criminal activity North and South, in the case of the latter apparently with greater energy than in the recent past, albeit for personal gain. This activity has included providing protection and undertaking paid services for organized crime gangs, from which it secures a considerable income. This is particularly the case in the Dublin area. Overall therefore our view remains essentially unchanged: INLA retains a capacity for extreme violence; we cannot rule out its becoming more dangerous in future; and in the meantime it is largely a criminal enterprise.

A sorry situation. But note that it has a ‘capacity for extreme violence’.
The Real IRA is hardly any better. Although not involved in murder they have been:

2.18 …responsible for an unreported shooting in April 2007. In
common with other dissident republican groups, it has targeted PSNI officers and premises. In March 2007 units monitored and targeted PSNI officers and vehicles in the North West and in South Armagh. It planned but was unable to carry out a number of operations, especially in the Lurgan and Craigavon area. In the summer it was probably responsible for threatening alleged criminals in west Belfast. The police have continued to have some success against RIRA.

2.20 The picture for RIRA is therefore of an organisation which has achieved little operationally in the six months under review, which maintains a strong determination to be able to do much more in future, and which has made efforts to enhance its capability to that end. The threat thus remains.

Meanwhile on the Loyalist side there is at least some change in the seemingly glacial pace of development. The Report is actually quite positive about the UVF.

2.27 Shortly after we said this in our Fifteenth Report the UVF leadership did substantially grasp the nettle. On 3 May 2007 it issued a statement in which it said that it would renounce violence and transform itself from a military to a civilian organisation. Paramilitary activity such as recruitment, training and targeting would stop and so-called active service units would be stood down. The organisation as a whole would be downsized. Any involvement by members in crime would be in contravention of the “command” of the leadership. As to weapons, they were not decommissioned. Instead they were to be put “beyond reach”; the statement referred to their being in dumps under the control of the leadership but not accessible to members. This statement and its implementation appear to embrace the Red Hand Commando as well.

2.28 We have looked closely at the UVF to determine whether the statement has been given practical effect; four of the six months under review follow the statement. Broadly speaking, we think that implementation is under way.
The leadership is clear on the direction in which it is taking the organisation, has briefed the message in the statement down to the grass roots and has started to take steps to reduce the organisation’s size. Some members have been allowed to leave; some have been expelled on disciplinary grounds. We have no indication that there has been any recruitment since early May.
Such intelligence gathering as appears to have taken place has been directed against potential informers or suspected dissident republicans12.
That aside, we have no evidence of any terrorist-type activity, whether overt, such as targeting, or preparatory, such as acquiring weapons although we cannot rule out local and unsanctioned acquisition on an opportunistic basis.

Their summation?

2.29 It is therefore clear that the 3 May statement represents a major turning point for the UVF. The leadership has set a strategy to which it is committed and has started to implement it. But the position is not yet entirely transformed and there are some pockets of resistance. Although we are not aware of any overall challenge to the leadership it is not at all surprising that there should be some opposition despite the long period of careful preparation and internal consultation which preceded the statement. It is understandable that the leadership should want to manage this carefully.

So much done, but more to do. Mind you, there is the eyewatering statement that…

We have mentioned before that the organisation might seek to maintain a small residual capability to respond if necessary to future attacks from republicans13.

They mention it, but they don’t indicate what their position is on it. Is it a good or a bad thing? I assume leading lights are issued permits for personal protection weapons, or perhaps I’m completely wrong there.

Finally to the Ulster Defence Association. There the situation is considerably less positive.

Some care therefore needs to be taken in making an overall assessment of the UDA over the six months under review. The period has been dominated by the results of the internal tensions. Those same tensions also prompted some other less public activity. The leadership has sought to reduce violence by members and the level of criminality, and has continued to take steps to that end though its success has been limited. We do not doubt, as we have said before, that there are senior figures who are convinced of the need for the organisation to move in an entirely new direction. But the organisation is not centrally structured and, as has been demonstrated in the six months under review this limits its capacity to deliver change quickly.
There has been some very recent progress by way of contacts between the UDA and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning but there is no sign that the decommissioning of weapons is an early prospect. The pace of real change remains far too slow. We will continue to judge the organisation by what it does, not what it says. We deal in paragraphs 4.5 – 4.8 below with some issues to do with both the main loyalist organisations.

One wonders whether it is within the capacity of the UDA to change significantly in the near to medium term. The word ‘Association’ in the title barely hints at the reality of that ‘organisation’ in terms of the loose bonds between the various constituent elements.

And the figures for violence in the North are indicative of the problems ahead. Worth noting that the three murders during the time period (1st March to 31st August 2007) were committed by Republican paramilitaries and constitute “the worst six month period for two years”. On the other hand casualties from loyalist attacks were “about one third what it was in the same period in 2005-2006″ while casualties from Republican attacks fell to two-thirds the total during the same period in the previous 12 months”. The number of areas in Northern Ireland experiencing such attacks also decreased.

The conclusions from the report are striking.

– The combined figure of shooting and assault casualties of
loyalist attacks – 14 – was 2 less than in the preceding six month
period, which had been the lowest for any such period on which
we had reported; this is a decrease of 13%. This time it resulted
entirely from 1 shooting and 13 assaults, as compared with 2
from shootings and 14 from assaults in the preceding 6 month
period. It compares with 33 in the same period in 2006 (made up
of 14 shooting casualties and 19 assault casualties) – a reduction
– The combined total of shooting and assault casualties of
republican attacks was 2, both of assault. It is by far the lowest
such figure we have reported and it compares with 13 in the
preceding six month period (8 from shootings and 5 from
assaults) – a reduction of 85%. In the same period in 2006 the
total was also 13, though it was differently made up (4 from
shootings and 9 from assaults);

It’s early days to be making any sweeping statements, but let’s be optimistic for a moment. Overall we see a society where paramilitary violence is ebbing. Loyalist violence (excluding murder) remains at a higher level than Republican. But in both there are significant decreases.

But back to PIRA. The Report notes that:

We do not think that the organisation is involved in terrorist or other illegal activity and believe it has continued to instruct members to refrain from committing crime. Some members remained involved in criminality but such incidents as there have been were in contravention of these instructions. During the parades season it urged cooperation with the police. Some people whom PIRA had previously exiled have been able to return to Northern Ireland. Some members in some areas have not entirely moved on from the view that dealing with anti-social behaviour is appropriately mediated by threats and social exclusion, as a form of community control, rather than by proper human rights-compliant community policing. That said, we remain of the firm view that the organisation is fully committed to pursuing the political path and that it will not be diverted from it.

The Report is clear that a distinction can be made between criminality by ‘some members’ and how any such activities are in contravention of the direction of the Republican Movement.

A shame then that the media cannot make a similar distinction. Because when it comes down to it PIRA and Sinn Féin have taken a path of great risk across two, perhaps three, decades. There is an argument that they deserve no praise for doing ‘what they should have done originally’ but that, I’d suggest, is to ignore the way in which people are caught up in specific socio-political dynamics. Perhaps they don’t deserve praise, but certainly they deserve recognition. And beyond that they deserve better than a media narrative that appeals to the worst by exaggeration or fabrication and completely ignores the threat from existing groups which have the ability, capacity or propensity towards ‘a greater level of violence and crime’, or ‘extreme violence’.

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