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22 October 2015

Northern Ireland – Paramilitaries and prayer.

Northern Ireland – Paramilitaries and prayer.

A panel of independent reviewers was appointed last month by the Secretary of State to deliver an assessment of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. This was as a direct result of the killing of Kevin McGuigan in July and the PSNI’s subsequent assessment that the murder was linked to IRA leadership. The report was published this week (19 October 2015) and the findings make for uncomfortable, if not unsurprising reading. The panel found that:-

The most serious threat now comes from dissident republican splinter groupings mostly formed post-ceasefire. Security sources assess, that the threat level is such that at any given time, a terrorist attack is highly likely.

All of the main paramilitary groups which operated during the troubles remain in existence. These include the UVF, Red Hand Commandos (RHC), UDA, PIRA and INLA

None of these ‘main’ groups were found to be planning or conducting terrorist attacks. However each group have committed murders since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Unsurprisingly, no group has complete control over it’s members and regular unsanctioned activity occurs. Across the ‘main’ groups there is still some access to weapons and some members are involved in serious criminal activity including extortion, drug dealing, smuggling and intimidation.

In a strangely worded phrase, ‘Provisional IRA (PIRA) members believe that the Provisional Army Council oversees both the PIRA and Sinn Féin with an overarching strategy…..which has a wholly political focus…..of achieving a united Ireland by political means.’

Reaction to the Panel’s report was mixed. Sinn Féin denied the ongoing existence of any structure, role or purpose of an ‘army council’. They stated that their only decision-making body was the Ard Chomhairle, the party executive. The Ulster Unionist Party read the report as vindication of their decision to leave the Northern Ireland Executive. The DUP, with a speed that surprised many, accepted the report as the evidence they required to resume their ministerial positions within the Executive. Presently, multiparty talks continue and this report is certainly framing the discussion.

One other important development at this stage is the announcement of the Loyalist Community Council set up last week and involving Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell. At the launch, the UDA, UVF and the RHC declared their commitment to the 1998 agreement and to the leaving behind of violence and criminality. This public commitment to peace, law and order from loyalist paramilitaries is welcome especially in light of the findings of the report.

As I’ve written before, addressing the whole paramilitary legacy is very complex. This is summed up well in the report when it states, ‘the existence and cohesion of these paramilitary groups since these ceasefires has played an important role in enabling the transition from extreme violence to political progress.’ However ‘individuals still represent a threat to national security.. are engaged in organised crime… cause serious harm to communities… and undermine Northern Ireland’s post-conflict transformation.’

One of our roles as Christians engaging in the public square is to prophetically point to the hope, love and life of the gospel. However, we do this right in the reality of a fallen world with violence, death and even paramilitaries.

We need to be armed with the decommissioning and paradoxical qualities of truth and grace. Truth to call out the ongoing existence of paramilitaries. Truth to acknowledge their deeply destructive past. But also the truth that people can change and redemption is possible through the gospel. This is where truth meets grace. Grace to risk new relationships. Grace to forgive in spite of pain. Grace to love, even our enemies. Grace to trust and to hope in the midst of doubt. This is profoundly difficult and requires supernatural help. So we pray. We pray for boldness for the Church, Christ’s body, commissioned as ambassadors of reconciliation for His kingdom in Northern Ireland in 2015. But we also pray specifically for those who dare to profess Jesus as Lord in the ongoing talks process. We pray for their faithfulness to the radical nature of truth and grace in these moments. We pray for spiritual and political breakthrough and for new conversations and relationships which transcend party politics in these delicate days ahead.