Heightened vigilance against paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland continues to be needed, with 194 households currently homeless due to paramilitary threats, the Independent Reporting Commission has said.

It described “shocking” incidents across 2023 including the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell and a high-profile feud in North Down.

In its sixth report, the IRC, described a “mixed” year with security situation data “broadly in line with the last few years”, but said a recent increase in shootings is a concern.

Detective Chief Superintendent John Caldwell
Detective Chief Superintendent John Caldwell (Brian Lawless/PA)

The commission emphasised that even though it has been over 25 years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, paramilitarism represents a continuing threat to individuals and society.

They said it must continue to be given “sufficient attention and focus to ensure that it becomes a thing entirely of the past”.

The commission, led by commissioners John McBurney, Monica McWilliams, Tim O’Connor and Mitchell Reiss, was established in 2017 to report annually on progress towards ending paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland.

It is governed by an international treaty between the UK and Irish Governments which reflected the terms of the Fresh Start Agreement concluded by the two Governments and the Northern Ireland parties in 2015.

Commenting on the sixth report, the commissioners said paramilitarism represents a “continuing threat to individuals and society”, and “must continue to be given sufficient attention and focus to ensure that it becomes a thing entirely of the past”.

“We characterise 2023 as ‘mixed’ in terms of paramilitarism. The security situation data showed levels broadly in line with the last few years, although the recent increase in shootings is a concern,” they said.

“There were some shocking incidents during the year involving both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries.

“These included the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell – which was instrumental in the raising of the threat level in Northern Ireland-related terrorism from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’ – and a number of incidents occurring under the banner of Loyalist paramilitarism, including a high-profile drug gang feud, which served to underline how quickly situations can escalate.”

They went on to raise concern over coercive control, which they said continues to be an unacceptable feature of life in many communities where the paramilitaries operate.

“194 households were accepted as homeless due to paramilitary intimidation last year,” they said.

“Instability at political level has also not helped. There are no grounds for complacency.

“Rather, the need for a continued sustained focus on tackling and ending paramilitarism remains essential.”

The commissioners also commended progress, and said work undertaken by the Tackling Paramilitarism, Criminality and Organised Crime Programme is “bearing real fruit”.

Young Citizen Volunteers (YCV) mural on the wall of a property on the Lower Newtownards Road in east Belfast
Young Citizen Volunteers (YCV) mural on the wall of a property on the Lower Newtownards Road in east Belfast (PA)

“We welcome an increasing focus on collaborative working by all of the entities involved, with a relatively new structure at the top chaired by the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, ensuring strategic leadership on a joined-up basis at a senior level, and there are strong examples of inter-agency collaboration at working level,” they said.

They also said there are “growing indications” that the cumulative impact of collective law enforcement efforts, including on the part of the Paramilitary Crime Task Force, is having an impact on the groups and their leaderships.

“Prevention, collaboration and partnership work, including neighbourhood policing, must continue to be adequately resourced and funded. We acknowledge and welcome the commitment of the senior leadership team at the PSNI to this approach,” they added.

However the commissioners said there is much more work to do, and highlighted political instability amid the continued collapse of devolved government at Stormont.

They recommended the creation of an ambitious new Programme for Government, with a commitment to tackle paramilitarism, and set ambitious economic and social policy goals, including for education and poverty, which will help address the socio-economic conditions which are linked to the continuing existence of paramilitarism.

They also renewed their call for an agreed formal process of group transition, involving direct engagement with the paramilitary groups themselves, to bring about disbandment.

Concluding, the commissioners said: “A core goal of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was ensuring that the future was based on exclusively peaceful, democratic politics and that paramilitarism would become a thing entirely of the past.

“We believe that just as risks had to be taken to achieve peace in the 1990s, and dialogue underpinned those endeavours, so today it is worth taking further risks in order to achieve the goal of ending paramilitarism once and for all.”