Image from January 2019: red white and blue curb stones demark this as a loyalist area in Belfast
Dr Helen Poole is Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Health and Society and Lead for University of Northampton’s Research Centre for the Reduction of Gun Crime, Trafficking and Terrorism
I recently had the privilege to join a Law Masters field trip to Northern Ireland. I had few pre-conceptions when I left, but I had come to understand the 1998 Belfast Agreement, often deemed to be under threat from BREXIT arrangements, was tenuous at best, regardless of the any deal or no deal situation with Europe. Indeed, our trip to Derry had to be cancelled due to a car bomb explosion a few days before, reported in some press to be motivated by BREXIT, but more likely designed to mark 100 years since the start of the Irish War of Independence.
What became clear after long discussions with representatives from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), an ex-political prisoner, and a member of the suspended Legislative Assembly at Stormont, is that Northern Ireland has been far from peaceful in the last 20 years, but the nature of the threat has changed. Furthermore, the risks of returning to the days of political conflict are dependent not only on whatever BREXIT brings, but also on the fact that there has been no effective Assembly in Northern Ireland for over 2 years, increasing the chances of a return to direct rule from Westminster. Furthermore, the complexity of the situation is considerable, with multiple groups active within discreet areas of Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland.
There is much being discussed at the moment regarding the crime-terror nexus, the idea that criminals and terrorists cooperate, co-exist or perhaps adopt one another’s tactics in order to further their respective causes: financial gain and ideology respectively. However, it is perhaps more accurate to say that terrorists in Northern Ireland moved from organised criminal activity to support their ideological plight, a sort of necessary evil, to becoming predominately organised criminals using ideology to legitimise their activities, which include drug dealing, prostitution, money laundering, extortion, and the trafficking of fuel, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, people and firearms.
This loose alignment of organised criminals to distinct groups who were active in the conflict provides them with a legitimacy in communities, which enables them to continue with their activities largely unchallenged. Coupled with this, years of distrust of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, now replaced with the PSNI, means that those masquerading as para-militaries, are often the communities first port of call when they are experiencing difficulties. These groups provide not only protection through a form of policing largely comprised of violence and intimidation, but also act as a pseudo-Citizen’s Advice Bureau, coaching individuals on maximising their benefit awards for example. It is well-known that these groups exert their own form of justice, such as pre-arranged shootings, which has led the Government to release a media campaign in an attempt to tackle this. We have thus reached a situation where organised criminal groups are running some communities by a form of consent as a result of a perceived lack of any other legitimate authority to represent them.