‘Eaten bread is soon forgotten’. Garda Commissioner Drew Harris could be forgiven for pinning that old saw on the wall behind his desk to remind visitors who might want to commiserate over the heat directed at him these days by Sinn Fein, that he has helped the Provos – IRA as well as Sinn Fein – make a whole lot of money while keeping their grunts under control, and they have a funny way of showing their gratitude.
He did that, with the assistance of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, by legalizing, regularizing and allowing virtually unhindered IRA, UDA and UVF ownership, control and involvement in one of the most corrupted businesses in Ireland – the private security industry.
For years both Loyalists and Republican groups, primarily the Provos but also the Officials in the latter camp, had established a significant foothold in an industry that was unregulated, easy to infiltrate and even easier to exploit financially.
Customers were either intimidated into accepting the services of such outfits or recognised that they probably couldn’t get better protection than from the people who otherwise might be robbing them.
This is what the Northern Ireland Office had to say about the industry back in 2006:
‘The industry is particularly vulnerable to penetration by paramilitaries because of low barriers of entry to those wishing to provide a private security service. There have been examples in Northern Ireland of private security services being subverted to act as a cover for criminality, for example, the provision of security guards to provide cover for running a ‘protection racket’.
Come the peace process and all was changed. Under the leadership of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, the new power sharing command at Stormont decided to “regularise” the industry by effectively legalising paramilitary involvement.
In fact it was one of Paisley/McGuinness’ first acts, set in motion even before they formally took office. You can read the full story here (in a tale that adds a new meaning to ‘Chuckle Brothers’), in a post I wrote last December, after the Strokestown affair.
That meant drawing up new rules to make that possible. And who did Paisley & McGuinness turn to for help in that enterprise? None other than PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris, who was head of crime and the police force’s liaison with MI5, who doubtless had their own input into the whole business.
The key part of the new rules read as follows:
“……that conflict-related convictions of ‘politically motivated’ ex-prisoners, or their membership of any organisation, should not generally be taken into account [in accessing employment, facilities, goods or services] provided that the act to which the conviction relates, or the membership, predates the Agreement.”
In other words, as long as the person applying to own or work in a security firm committed his or her paramilitary offence before the Good Friday Agreement then there was no problem.
So Drew Harris gave the police and intelligence service’s imprimatur to a scheme that would enrich paramilitary groups while giving their former members a) a handy bit of money now and then and b) something to keep them busy and their minds off how the war they had fought ended in a somewhat different fashion than they been led to expect.
One of the first people to take advantage of the new private security regime was a close relative of Martin McGuinness, one of the architects of the new scheme. Another was a west Belfast-based, former IRA prisoner whose door was one of the first to be knocked by the PSNI in the wake of the Northern Bank robbery.
The Provo leadership, both IRA and Sinn Fein, can also be content in the knowledge that their grunts have something to do that sort of resembles what they were doing before the peace process, a few bob in their pockets and one less reason to grumble about the way things ended.
And who made that happen? Well without Drew Harris’ nod, none of this would have been possible.