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It was if a rewind button had been hit and what followed was a playback into conversations that have spanned two-plus decades.

The panel discussion in north Belfast on Tuesday was on tackling paramilitarism; the question: How can government and civil society work together?

We now have an Independent Reporting Commission – established under the Fresh Start Agreement of 2015 to report on progress towards ending paramilitary activity.

Our processes and our conversations travel in circles.

Not long ago, there was an Independent Monitoring Commission that reported on continuing paramilitary activity; and much of what was discussed at Tuesday’s event has been discussed many times before, including the “societal shrug” at continuing paramilitary shootings/beatings.

It was once a governmental shrug.

Such shootings and beatings were not considered breaches of the ceasefires declared in the 1990s and that blind eye allowed for acceptable levels of violence in  both the republican and loyalist communities.

There were questions in this latest conversation – chaired by Peter Osborne of the Community Relations Council –  about neighbourhood policing: Has it regressed?

Questions also about the absence of a functioning government at Stormont, with the influential republican Sean Murray describing politics as being more polarised today than at any time since the ceasefires.

PUP deputy leader Dr John Kyle was also part of the panel discussion: ” The leaders of the main criminal elements are well known in the community,” he told this website.

“If they continue unhindered, then the attempt to end paramilitary activity once and for all will have failed and, at present, for the communities little has changed,” he added.


Two out of ten was how John Kyle marked progress, or a lack of such.

When criminals are so “well known” in the community yet appear untouchable, then there will always be questions about the effectiveness of policing; and, as I listened to yesterday’s discussion, I was reminded of something the late David Ervine said more than two decades ago; a biting comment that  the police couldn’t catch an elephant in the snow.

Are the police not seeing what others are seeing? If not, why not?

The peace process, including the Patten Report, gave us the term “new policing”, but is that what we have?

Not really – not yet, and part of this is because we don’t have an endorsement of policing across the communities but, rather, something that is half-hearted.

Tackling paramilitarism is not just just about a police response but about some wider initiative; thus the question on Tuesday: How can government and civil society work together?

Think of that question in the context of broken politics, the disagreements and continuing battles over legacy and how this shapes community attitudes and thinking.

The past is a poison in the policing and political systems and across the communities and, in 2018, the new politics of the Good Friday Agreement has become the old politics that was part of decades-long divisions.

So, there is a need for new conversations that go beyond the discussion organised by the Falls Community Council at 174 Trust in north Belfast on Tuesday.

A dialogue involving the leadership of the nationalist/republican community and the policing leadership;

A conversation within the nationalist community on the dissident threat and how that is brought to an end;

A dialogue involving the unionist/loyalist leadership and the policing leadership, and a governments-shaped initiative that starts in some serious way to try to mend our broken politics.

Are we serious about tackling paramilitarism, or are we involved in the same-old conversations?

A former loyalist prisoner, who spoke from the audience at Tuesday’s event, said the war is over and paramilitaries should not exist.

If only it were that simple.

Is the political war over – the war over legacy?

I was asked recently: when will the media end its war?

There are loyalists and republicans who are serious about peace and  who make important contributions including to the quiet initiative that ended the marching standoff in north Belfast.

Is that work acknowledged?

How do you separate those who are serious about peace from those whose only interest is self-interest and self-gain?

We need to go back to the drawing board, ask the hard questions again – not just of the police, but within politics and the communities.

Do we want peace, and how do we shape the next twenty years?


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at

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