I remember exactly where I was the morning after loyalist paramilitaries declared a ceasefire in October 1994. I was at a conference for sixth-formers from across the island of Ireland held at Campbell College in East Belfast. The conference was entitled, “Ireland: the next hundred years”. When it was being planned no-one could have known that it would be held the morning after the loyalist ceasefire. It changed everything.
Today, nineteen years and one month on, we are meant to be in a peaceful Northern Ireland. But are we?
The chairman of the Police Federation has said that he believes that one of the loyalist paramilitary groupings is no longer keeping its ceasefire. Terry Spence said:
“The UVF have been engaged in murder, attempted murder of civilians, attempted murder of police officers, they’ve been engaged in orchestrating violence on our streets, and it’s very clear to me that there engaged in an array of mafia-style activities.”
This morning we heard on the news about an attack on a fifteen-year-old in Coleraine, County Londonderry. The boy was shot in both legs by a gang of masked men, one of whom was armed with a baseball bat as well.
Over the weekend, the Mayor of North Down, Cllr Andrew Muir of the Alliance Party expressed concern about a poster from paramilitary organisations stating that they will severely deal with perpetrators of crimes.
Is this the best we can hope for?
I know that this is not the best that we can have in Northern Ireland. Those who are attempting to “police” their own areas by shooting fifteen-year-olds, by threatening posters, are not the guardians of the peace that they seem to think they are. The real guardians of the peace are the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
It is they who have been arresting those behind the riots and disorder that Northern Ireland has seen in the last 12 months. Today, they released images of individuals that they want to speak to, Detective Superintendant Sean Wright, the Senior Investigating Officer explained,
“In the past 12 months, police officers have dealt with a number of episodes of serious disorder on the streets of Northern Ireland. We have been clear from the outset that there would be consequences for individuals who seek to engage in illegal activity and we have been carrying out a thorough investigation to identify those involved and make them amenable for their actions.
I call on anyone with any information about these images and all other crimes including the shooting in Coleraine to get in touch with the PSNI. It is only by doing that those who act in a criminal way will feel the force of the law. And what is important is that it is done in a fair, normal and legal manner. That is by the police, the prosecution service and the courts. It is not up to some paramilitary thug to decide what is and is not acceptable.
Perhaps, each of us in our own communities needs to stand up and tell the bully boys that want to drag Northern Ireland backwards that we do not want it. There may be a lot more work to be done to bring our wee country to the real peaceful and shared society that we all want, but if we don’t try this, will those up at Stormont really help?