If there is one thing that unites the entire Northern Ireland community right now, it is the justified and outright frustration with paramilitary groups on both sides of the sectarian divide.
Everyone agrees that something must be done to ensure that ceasefires are really ceasefires – but, so far, no one has been quite sure about how to go about it.
The possible appointment of an international observer to shine a spotlight on both republican and loyalist paramilitary violence, outlined by the Secretary of State to the House of Commons, reflects a proposal made by Alliance to the two Governments at Hillsborough on July 4.
It is regrettable that the British Government could not proceed with an appointment now, as it would have given real teeth to Dr Reid’s speech and a critical boost to restoring confidence and credibility to the peace process.
There have been a series of international appointments made in recent years to assist us with various aspects of the peace process. This goes back to the appointment, in December 1995, of George Mitchell and his colleagues to advise on the best means to handle decommissioning in relation to political talks.
What Alliance has in mind now is the appointment of a robustly independent international figure of high standing to monitor and report on the activities of organisations claiming to be maintaining ‘ceasefires’.
This figure would be appointed by the Government, and would report regularly – at least every two months. Reports should be comprehensive, and be published, to demonstrate that breaches of the Mitchell Principles on non-violence will not be tolerated.
In the Alliance version of this plan, this person would not be an adjudicator on the formal status of ceasefires. Formal assessments and determinations of the quality of ceasefires would, and should, remain the prerogative of the Secretary of State who is legally accountable for his actions in this respect.
It would be a serious error to appoint a judge or lawyer, as this would indicate a very narrow legal remit. What Alliance has in mind is not someone who would just report on high profile issues like Castlereagh and Colombia. We need the observer to also examine what is happening on the ground in relation to major problems such as street violence and paramilitary attacks.
The appointee would have the ability to focus international attention on those parties and organisations that are failing to live up to their commitments to non-violence and exclusively democratic means.
Through making objective, public, reports of what is happening the international observer would bring considerable pressure to bear on those involved in illegal, destabilising activities, and provide greater openness to the peace process.
Some specific details of any post still need to be ironed out. For example, a balance will inevitably have to be struck between their independence and the level of access they have to police intelligence.
The appointment of an observer might appear to be linked to a process of exclusion. On the contrary, an independent outsider has the best chance of encouraging groups to move away from violence, outside the formal determinations which the Secretary of State is charged with making
But independent reports would enable us to move away from the perception that paramilitaries are above criticism.
I hope that the Government will proceed to make an appointment by next month. There is a history of Government initiatives being announced and then quietly shelved.
This must not happen in this instance.
Therefore, it is crucially important that broad-based political support for this concept be built steadily over the next month or so.
The people of Northern Ireland want to see a normal society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
When the Agreement was signed, I think that most people were prepared to tolerate the notion of an imperfect peace for a short time, provided there was a speedy transition towards a more normal society.
But what they cannot accept is an imperfect peace that is allowed to become more and more imperfect – until there is no peace at all.
While in some respects the security situation has improved substantially, both loyalists and republicans have not only continued, but also intensified, their involvement in certain reprehensible, anti-democratic activities. They have even diversified into others.
There has been an implicit assumption that violence that against the state is different from terror inflicted on the community – indeed that the latter does not matter. This is not acceptable.
All of the organisations considered to be formally on ceasefire are suspected of involvement in murders, have engaged in human rights abuses (so-called ‘punishment beatings’) and street violence, and have links with organised crime.
In too many parts of Northern Ireland, paramilitaries are in de facto control and mark out their territory with flags and other emblems that are resented by the local residents.
At present, there is a very real danger of institutionalising paramilitarism.
The Agreement was to be an inclusive process, designed to create legitimate cross-community political institutions and consolidate paramilitary ceasefires. In a democratic society, the former cannot be undermined by the continuation of political violence.
But when violence does occur, there is a real dilemma for policy-makers. On the one hand, they do not wish to jeopardise the inclusive nature of the process and risk a full-scale return to violence by sanctioning those involved. But on the other hand, they cannot allow the impression that there is an acceptable level of violence, which the paramilitaries continue to ratchet upwards.
A peace process that is held together by sweeping uncomfortable truths under the carpet for the sake of political expediency will become morally bankrupt and eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.
This deeply worrying problem of paramilitary violence has never been properly addressed. An historic mistake was made with the disproportionate focus on decommissioning at the expense of a proper examination of actual paramilitary activity.
The Mitchell Principles and aspects of the early release legislation have not been effective in dealing with the problem.
It is in this context that Alliance feels that our proposals, reflected in the concept that the Secretary of State outlined to the House of Commons, can have real value.
It is more than simple rhetoric on our part. The appointment of a distinguished international figure would be a measured and coherent response to the current major crisis in the peace process. We must act now, to defend the Good Friday Agreement.