If Stormont’s “paramilitary transitioning” had a legal basis, would it feel less like putting some people above the law

Posted By: December 14, 2016

Newton Emerson. Irish News(Belfast). Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A BRITISH Neo-Nazi movement has just been proscribed as a terrorist organization – the first time this has happened to a far-right group.

National Action, which describes itself as a “national socialist youth organization”, has been described by the UK Home Secretary as “racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic”.

It will be banned under the Terrorism Act 2000, which is also the legislation proscribing the UDA, the UVF, and the various IRAs.

 The next step is presumably for Downing Street to set up a fund and channel community grants through National Action members until they become less racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic in unmeasured and unspecified ways.

 That can’t hole Stormont has gone with its flagship policy on paramilitary “transitioning.”

 Last week, the PSNI said active UDA members had “connections” to Charter NI, an east Belfast beneficiary of Stormont’s £80 million Social Investment Fund.

 The Executive Office called this a “not insignificant statement” and said any evidence of criminal activity should result in “courts and jail.”

 Charter NI said likewise, adding it was surprised that none of this had been raised during its “regular involvement with PSNI officers.”

 To which we might add the classic line from Casablanca: “I’m shocked – shocked – to find gambling going on in this establishment.”

 After a meeting this week between the first minister and the chief constable, the Executive Office said ministers “were assured by the PSNI that it has no concerns about the work of Charter NI.”

 Thank goodness for that.

 Last week’s statement flicked a light on in the rabbit-hole, revealing Stormont, the police, and the UDA all curled up together. It had to be quickly switched off because these things cannot coexist under any illumination.

 For a start, mere membership of the UDA – active or otherwise – is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail. Professing to membership is treated as the same offense.

 Supporting a proscribed organization also gets 10 years, and is defined as addressing a meeting, arranging or managing a meeting or assisting the arrangement or management of a meeting, attended by three or more people.

 Financial support invokes a separate set of offenses, punishable by up to 14 years in jail. These include providing or receiving money or property, or encouraging others to provide money or property, all where there is even “reasonable cause to suspect that it may be used for the purposes of terrorism.”

A related offense outlaws “entering into or becoming concerned with” any suspicious “funding arrangement.”

 Finally and unusually in UK-wide law, there is a duty to disclose any “belief or suspicion” regarding these offenses, with failure to do so itself an offense punishable by five years in jail.

You can see how many problems this might cause, following police acknowledgment of paramilitary connections to a government scheme.

 Once such a thing is even suspected, let alone known, everyone is supposed to report it on pain of imprisonment.

 Should the scheme continue despite suspicions, questions of culpability arise. It was reported last week that Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness twice had to use a little-known power called ‘ministerial direction’ to compel their officials to buy and sell land at Ballykelly without a business case.

 If officials had concerns about signing off irregular land deals, should they not be at least equally concerned about signing checks for the Social Investment Fund?

 The Terrorism Act 2000 is the UK’s main anti-terror legislation and the direct replacement for the Troubles-era Prevention of Terrorism Act. Its full title is: “An Act to make provision about terrorism; and to make temporary provision for Northern Ireland about the prosecution and punishment of certain offenses, the preservation of peace and the maintenance of order.”

 Wishing this away like some awkward old statute on goat-herding in the Pennines is really not meant to be on.

 The Act allows the UK home secretary to de-proscribe the UDA, an organization that was legal until 1992. However, nobody has thought to make a temporary provision for transitioning the UDA, or its members, back into lawful society. Nor does anyone at Stormont appear to have asked the British government to consider it.

 It is a strange oversight for such a legalistic age. If paramilitary transitioning had a legal basis, would it feel less like putting some people above the law?