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Billy King


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Readings in Nonviolence

Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

Countering paramilitarism

They haven’t gone away, you know. Paramilitaries. While there has been regrouping in various ways among republicans opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and ceasefires after the standing down and then demise of the IRA, loyalist paramilitarism in Northern Ireland has remained more intact, if on a smaller scale than heretofore.

A current campaign from the NI Department of Justice brings attention to the issue and covers something of what people can do in opposing this phenomenon. See  and a copy of a public poster Ending the Harm is part of the Tackling Paramilitarism Programme and backed by the PSNI among others. There is also a civil society Stop Attacks Forum. A report on the issue of paramilitary attacks by Paul Smyth at Intimidation and punishment beatings or shootings continue, not at anything like the same degree as during the Troubles but still at a worrying level – and one paramilitary shooting or beating is one too many.

As if to emphasise the point, there was an horrific attack in late October (2018) on a man near Garvagh, Co Derry, when he was shot in the legs and arms, as well as being beaten, in an isolated house in the countryside where they also tried to set some items on fire. His young teenage daughter was in the house at the time and pleaded with the paramilitaries to spare her father, even offering her piggy bank to them to leave him alone. They threatened her and took her mobile phone so, after her father was shot, she had to run a considerable distance to a neighbouring house to raise the alarm. If you wanted to write a particularly ghoulish script for a horror film you would be doing well to achieve half this level of grim terror.

Obviously many who were involved in paramilitarism have moved on since 1998. Others have become community activists of one kind or another while retaining paramilitary or ex-paramilitary links. Ex-prisoners and ex-paramilitary linked groups did deserve funding to help re-integrate and find a positive role in society and local communities but, as time has gone on, the issue has arisen as to the extent to which such funding perpetuates or has perpetuated a superior role for such people when non-paramilitary community activists have been grappling around for spare change to keep centres and projects afloat. It is not an easy one on which to call an answer.

One general answer, however, is certainly inclusion. Of course certain people may, and do, exclude themselves, or feel so strongly but also so small and powerless that they seek to use the bullet, the bomb or the threat in order to amplify their voice. There is still every reason to attempt inclusion and dialogue. During the Troubles, there were those who demanded ‘rooting out the men of violence’ but this was a singularly unwise demand; how do you ‘root out’ whoever without trampling on human rights and without reinforcing the cycle of violent reaction? [For a 1992 take on the issue, see page 3] However the extent to which inclusion should mean special treatment can be a vexed question.

There are also other ways. Violence can certainly achieve certain things but it cannot, in the Northern Ireland context, win anything of value in the longer term for anyone; surely the Troubles proved that along with the stalemate which took place, running Northern Ireland into the ground while violence created both martyrs and trauma. Nonviolence has actually been shown, analytically, to be more effective than violence (simply word search ‘effectiveness nonviolence violence’ to see different takes on this) so much work needs to be done to create awareness of the possibilities of nonviolence in campaigning and struggling for political ends.

Mediation and nonviolence need to be covered in the school room, at an appropriate level, as well as in youth groups so that young people leaving school at 16 or 18 have a keen understanding of how to deal with conflict in a non-confrontational way. This includes knowing about the stages of conflict and how to be a mediator or avail of mediation. It includes knowing the strength of nonviolence as a means of addressing issues and campaigning. Some might allege that this is ‘brainwashing’ children. This accusation would be nonsense as it would be giving them tools which they could use effectively, in all aspects of their lives and throughout their life. Children are already brainwashed enough in the ways of violence through the media and state propaganda on behalf of the military and some in Northern Ireland by tales of a violent paramilitary past.

Furthermore, state actions, either through fighting wars or retaining weapons like Trident (in the case of the UK), or buying in to increasing militarism and higher spending on the military (Ireland and most of Western Europe) are setting a bad example. It may not be on the local stage but this is still saying ‘violence and threat is the way to settle disputes’ (despite, for example, the Irish constitution emphasising the pacific resolution of conflict). Paramilitarism can flourish in a divided society like Northern Ireland where violence is held up as a legitimate methodology, and past wars are celebrated, because it is saying that violence is all right where the cause is ‘just’ – and of course we feel ‘our’ cause, whatever it might be, is just - the violence just happens to be taking place at a different level, within the community.

But nonviolence also requires interaction across divides. To overcome paramilitarism is impossible if the fractured nature of society in Northern Ireland continues as before. If people know, respect and understand ‘the other side’ then it becomes rather more difficult to consider a violent response to situations which arise. However the rapid descent into violence in Northern Ireland from 1969, and the way in which the former Yugoslavia broke up so rapidly and former neighbour fought former neighbour, illustrate some of the problems. Integration is necessary, in so many different ways, but also education in the possibilities of nonviolent struggle.

On the issue of integration in Northern Ireland, the surface has only been scratched. The community relations policy of Together: Building a United Community (TBUC)  is better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick but seriously lacks a compelling vision; it might be better labelled Sometimes Together: Building a Very Slightly Less Divided Community. Its effect on the background, the sea in which paramilitarism can grow and even flourish, is negligible. A much greater, deeper vision is necessary. And without such a vision, and work to implement it, working to end paramilitarism will simply be blown away in the wind.

Of course individual courage is required; to refuse to get involved or to support any aspect of paramilitarism. That is easier said than done if you live in an area effectively controlled by paramilitaries, or someone threatens you personally, your family, or a business you own or are involved in, and you don’t see a way out or a different way to do things. And individuals have to make their own decisions. Local paramilitary control in communities is a difficult nut to crack; it is a force to be felt but it can also be invisible much of the time. However when there is a vision to create a society without violence, a vision communicated to, and supported by, ordinary people then there is the prospect that such ‘ordinary people’ can do the extraordinary and resist.

With current policies there is little prospect of paramilitarism ‘going away’ in Northern Ireland any time in the near future. But that still means it is essential to tackle the issues concerned from as many angles as possible, and these include a variety of social and economic matters, such as powerlessness and poverty which are important in helping make paramilitarism possible. Paramilitarism in Northern Ireland takes place because of a storm of factors – not just The Great Divide which is the primary reason - that come together in an unholy alliance, so a lasting solution needs to address all of these.

Copyright INNATE 2019