Direct engagement with paramilitary groups is necessary to achieve disbandment of the organisations, MPs have been told.
Members of the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) addressed the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, defending their proposal of direct engagement with paramilitary organisations.
In its most recent report, the IRC recommended that the UK and Irish governments consider appointing an “Independent Person” who would be authorised to speak to the various interested parties, including paramilitary groups, to gather their views on how to move towards disbandment.
IRC commissioner Tim O’Connor said the independent person would act as a “preparer of the ground”.
He added: “We know that it’s a challenging idea, but after six years or so together we would love if there was some alternative but we don’t see how we can achieve this goal of ending paramilitarism once and for all, without some kind of a process like that.
“That’s the view we have come to collectively.”
IRC commissioner John McBurney told the committee that engaging directly with paramilitary organisations was an idea worth testing.
“Clearly, there will always be people who will be very sceptical to the notion of engaging directly with the remaining paramilitary groups, with a view to constructing a process towards disbandment, towards the permanent end of all the paramilitary groupings that we have, there will always be a scepticism about that, my view on that is that it is worthy of being tested,” he said.
He added: “I still come back to the notion that if paramilitary leaders are saying, we will engage meaningfully with an independent person and with a wider transition endeavour, dealing with the ending of recruitment, decommissioning of weaponry, engagement with legacy bodies, allowing people to leave the organisation without repercussion, and so forth.
“If they’re prepared to engage in such a process, then I think we have to seriously consider that as a viable step forward at this point.”
The commissioners were asked by the chair of the committee, Conservative MP Simon Hoare, if there was any outreach from the Northern Ireland political parties to involve paramilitary groups in democratic processes.
Mr McBurney said such a process did not exist, and would be difficult to establish due to criticism parties would face.
“There is a complete absence of cover to do what you have just described, because it’s not within a process, bringing these organisations to a completely different, non-violent, non disciplined, organised structure away from that,” he said.
“So in the absence of a process, any political party, any central political party, engaging with paramilitary leaders, or any organisation that’s linked to the paramilitary groupings, is then at risk of being severely criticised for that engagement.
“There is no context of achieving disbandment because there’s no process.”
Mr McBurney also said that policing alone would not be able to prevent more young people engaging with paramilitary organisations.
He said: “I think that the years that have passed have shown us that it is impossible in Northern Ireland terms, to see the end of all paramilitary and terrorist activity by purely policing and security service endeavours.”
He added: “We cannot arrest our way out of the thousands of continuing members of the various groups and individual transition, which is a worthy cause in and of itself, where someone leaves an organisation.
“Today if someone leaves an organisation, by old age or whatever, two young men might well be brought in as newly fledged recruits who didn’t even live through the conflict and maybe were born after the agreement and so forth.
“So that’s a cycle that has to be broken and dismantling organisations which would achieve the same things as disbandment.”
IRC Commissioner Monica McWilliams, who was involved in the negotiations of the Good Friday Agreement, said that some paramilitary groups are open to transition and need help to achieve this.
“We have always said you would need to put clear blue water between those people who say they’re up for this in terms of transition, and then we would have much more intelligence about the groups that aren’t,” she said.
“At the minute, I think they’re all being tarred with the same brush and from our discussions, we’re trying to get a picture of those who show willingness, and to test that and isn’t that something we ought to be doing now? Rather than just having the current stalemate.
“It’s also the case that those groups who approach us do need help. They don’t have their own roadmap out of this.”