“Seventeen years after the 1998 Belfast Agreement, paramilitary groups remain a feature of life in NI; the UDA, the UVF, and the INLA have continued to recruit and all of the paramilitary groups maintain a relatively public profile in spite of being illegal orgnaisations.” –2015 Report commissioned by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland “Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland”
The Conservative government’s failure to win a majority in the recent UK general election has forced Theresa May into an unlikely alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. As the DUP negotiates a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the government – inevitably dubbed “a coalition of chaos” – the British public and media have clamoured for a crash course in Northern Irish politics. Google searches on the DUP have spiked, and Northern Irish journalists such as Siobhan Fenton and Sam McBride have found themselves interpreting the intricacies of Stormont to a much wider audience than usual.
It cannot be that Westminster is simply bored by politics outside of London: the attention given to figures such as the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon or Scottish Conservative Ruth Davidson amid whispers of a second independence referendum makes this clear. Nor is it that Northern Ireland lacks leonine lawmakers—one-time IRA leader Martin McGuinness only stepped down from politics shortly before his death earlier this year. Though Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill and DUP leader Arlene Foster represent a new generation, they both grew up against the backdrop of the Troubles: O’Neill’s father was a Provisional IRA prisoner, Foster’s father an RUC reservist shot by the IRA. Almost twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, perhaps British observers have come to take the peace process for granted, forgetting that peace requires continuous maintenance.
In many ways, the DUP’s newfound fame provides an excellent experiment in Charles Tilly’s Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists, where Tilly elucidated some of the issues with reification of the term “terror” and “terrorist” as applied to a variety of distinct social circumstances. The IRA, Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) are all proscribed organizations, yet the British public knows far more about republican violence than loyalist paramilitarism. Even David Cameron’s 2012 admission that there had been “shocking levels of collusion” between the security forces and the UDA men who murdered republican lawyer Pat Finucane 1989 did not focus public attention on this phenomenon.
Nevertheless, paramilitary organisations have played a prominent role in Northern Irish politics for decades. Although the DUP has never had an official relationship with loyalist paramilitarism, as Sinn Féin once had with the Provisionals, it has often been criticized for its loyalist links and has found it politically difficult to criticize loyalist activities. Indeed, Foster met with the UDA leader Jackie McDonald in south Belfast only a week before the election – and just days after a UDA faction carried out a very public murder. Although the DUP has dismissed suggestions of collusion, it is clear that a cautious courtship of paramilitaries defines grassroots electioneering in Northern Ireland on both sides of the sectarian divide.
In addition to one-on-one meetings with party leaders, loyalist paramilitaries have found other grounds through which to engage in Northern Irish politics, including the Loyalist Community Council (LCC)—a community organization founded in 2015 with support from the UVF, the UDA, and the Red Hand Commando. On 5 June, the LCC issued an endorsement urging loyalists to vote tactically for the unionist candidates who were best placed to stop Sinn Féin and the cross-community Alliance Party – Tom Elliott of the Ulster Unionist Party in Fermanagh South Tyrone and DUP candidates in Belfast North, South, and East. Although the senior DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson repudiated this endorsement, all three DUP candidates were victorious, and the statement remains the first news item on the LCC’s website.
Paramilitary groups were never going to abandon their role in Northern Ireland politics overnight in response to the Belfast Agreement, not least because this would have created a leadership vacuum. Paramilitaries in particular provided necessary organisational leadership in communities at a time when the state did not – a factor which explains some of the close relationships between local politicians and paramilitary leaders. The use of ‘peace money’ from the European Union to reintegrate ex-prisoners into society and learn from their experiences shows that the architects of the peace process were well aware of this dynamic, and were prepared to do what it took to effect a slow divorce.
The Belfast Agreement positioned both Westminster and Dublin as neutral parties in charge of mediation in Northern Ireland to guarantee peace and better enable this divorce on both sides of the sectarian divide. Entering into a power-sharing arrangement with DUP spurns this commitment. If the Conservative government’s disinterest in Northern Irish politics was not clear when the Theresa May failed to show for crisis talks after the Assembly election in March, the prime minister’s decision to forge a deal with the DUP confirms it. May has carelessly empowered loyalist paramilitaries, and underlined nationalists’ sense of exclusion from the political process at a time when Stormont remains suspended and Sinn Féin MPs continue to refuse to take their seats.
Sinn Féin achieved its best-ever Westminster performance last Thursday, winning seven of Northern Ireland’s eighteen seats—although the SDLP has levelled claims of voter fraud against it in the Foyle – and the prospect of DUP-Conservative collaboration may further strengthen its position within the nationalist community. Nevertheless, at least some dissident republican paramilitaries remain armed and committed to violence, and it is possible that they will take the opportunity to step up their campaign against the British state. Indeed, Northern Ireland police claim that paramilitary-style shootings have already doubled over the past year even though overall crime has fallen. Salvaging the peace – and devolved government – will require Westminster politicians to retreat from dalliances with the DUP and to engage with the very real issues facing the unionist and nationalist communities.