The prospect of consigning paramilitary violence and coercion to the history books was a key unifying hope which motivated the majority of people in Northern Ireland to back the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. A quarter of a century on, this goal is far from realised. Paramilitary groups continue to carry out sporadic attacks, but they also continue to exert day-to-day control in many of the most deprived working-class communities, and their threat is growing.
Paramilitaries are involved in drug dealing, loansharking, protection racketeering and other parasitic practices. The vast majority of working-class people wish to see the back of them. However, they are able to attract a layer of alienated young people – men, in particular – who see no other avenue to escape poverty and have a say in society. These groups also seek to legitimise their existence by ‘policing’ antisocial behaviour with violence or the threat of it, creating fresh trauma in communities already deeply scarred by the legacy of the Troubles.
The New IRA has been the most high-profile ‘dissident’ republican group in recent years, with its members implicated in the death of Lyra McKee during a riot in Derry in 2019, as well as the attack on police officer Stephen Caldwell in Omagh in February, carried out in front of children and their families. Insofar as they have a strategy, it is to provoke a reaction from the state and from loyalist forces, reigniting broader conflict in society. The umbrella group representing the loyalist paramilitaries withdrew its support from the Good Friday Agreement in 2021 in response to the Brexit deal which put a regulatory border in the Irish sea, and the growing sense of insecurity in the Protestant community is pushing a new generation of young people into the gangs’ ranks who are likely to be more inclined to go on the offensive.
While they remain relatively isolated, these groups can grow in the context of ongoing sectarian deadlock and polarisation. The continued influence of paramilitary forces reflects the reality that, despite the promise of the Good Friday Agreement, society remains deeply divided along sectarian lines, in terms of the areas we live in and the schools we attend, but also politically. Political forces with a vested interest in maintaining sectarian division – whether Orange or Green – can never overcome it. Neither has the promised ‘peace dividend’ ever been delivered for working-class communities. Instead, we have suffered decades of austerity, cuts to public services, and now the capitalist cost-of-living crisis, thanks to the policies of the politicians at Westminster and Stormont. The establishment forces offer no way out.
Instead, a solution must come from the working class itself, including the trade union movement, which represents around 240,000 workers from all backgrounds. Trade union activists have historically played a key role in challenging paramilitary violence. For example, strikes and demonstrations called by trade union activists in response to a series of tit-for-tat sectarian attacks in the early 1990s gave voice to working-class opposition to the ongoing conflict and were an important factor in bringing about the first ceasefires. This tradition is still alive, with a thousand people turning out to a rally called by Omagh Trade Union Council after the attack on DCI Caldwell in February.
Mobilising the working class in opposition to paramilitary violence is crucial, but it must be linked to a broader strategy to change society and offer working-class young people the hope of a better future, addressing the underlying conditions in which sectarianism and paramilitarism can breed. That includes organising a serious and coordinated industrial fightback against poverty, inequality and for investment in public services, but also challenging the sectarian blocs and their pro-capitalist policies politically. Linked with the movements of young people against climate destruction and oppression, such a movement could unite working-class people around a programme for socialist change with the potential to fundamentally challenge the influence of paramilitarism in our communities.