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Northern Ireland: Paramilitary Groups

Volume 765: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2015


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows.

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement on the assessment of the structure, roles and purpose of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, which I am publishing today and placing copies of in the Library of the House.

Before I turn to the assessment, it is worth reminding the House of the phenomenal progress that has been made in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years. We have moved on from a time when terrorism was an almost daily fact of life to one where the overwhelming majority have completely rejected violence as a means of trying to secure political ends.

The political settlement which sees people who were once enemies working together for the good of the whole community has transformed life for the better. However, as the murders of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan have highlighted, there are still serious legacy issues that need to be addressed, and that includes the structure, role and purpose of paramilitary groups.

I commissioned an assessment of those matters following the statement in August by the Police Service of Northern Ireland that a line of inquiry in relation to the murder of Kevin McGuigan was the involvement of members of the Provisional IRA. The assessment has been jointly drafted by the PSNI and MI5, drawing on current intelligence, and has been reviewed by three independent figures: Lord Carlile QC, Rosalie Flanagan, and Stephen Shaw QC.

The reviewers have confirmed today that the PSNI and MI5 engaged fully with them, consistent with their duties and constraints, and that the assessments were, in their words, ‘fair and balanced’, ‘evidence-based’ and ‘credible’. The reviewers state that they are,

‘satisfied that the assessments meet all the requirements placed upon us’.

I wish to thank PSNI, MI5 and the independent reviewers for carrying out this important work within the timeframe I gave them.

I would like to set out the Government’s position on paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. Paramilitary organisations have no place in a democratic society. They were never justified in the past, they are not justified today and they should disband. These organisations brought misery and suffering throughout the 30 years of the Troubles. Together, they were responsible for over 3,000 murders, with thousands more injured.

Only last week a service was held to mark the 25th anniversary of the IRA murder of that great champion of freedom and democracy, Ian Gow, and today I believe that the thoughts of the House should be with all those who suffered directly at the hands of paramilitary organisations. We should be mindful that, thanks in large part to the efforts of the police and our Armed Forces, along with the determination of the overwhelming majority of people across these islands, the future of Northern Ireland will only ever be determined by democracy and consent.

The assessment sets out the position in respect of those organisations which declared ceasefires in order to support and facilitate the political process. It does not cover in any detail the threat posed by dissident republican groupings, which is the subject of separate, regular reports that I make to the House. The assessment does, though, confirm that dissident republicans remain a severe threat and that at any given time a terrorist attack from them is highly likely. For our part, the Government will always give the police and security services the fullest possible backing in their efforts to keep people in Northern Ireland safe and secure.

The assessment confirms that all the main paramilitary groups operating during the Troubles are still in existence, including the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Red Hand Commando, the Ulster Defence Association, the Provisional IRA and the INLA. On structures, the assessment says that:

‘The majority of paramilitary organisations in this report still have leadership structures’,


‘organise themselves along militaristic lines’.

It goes on to say:

‘These labels make the groups look more prepared for a campaign of violence than they are’,

and that,

‘in the highly unlikely event that the groups were minded to return to terrorism, we judge they would be unable to resurrect the capability demonstrated at their peak’.

On role of these groups, the assessment concludes that:

‘None of these groups is planning or conducting terrorist attacks’,

although some INLA members have provided help to DR terrorists. The report also states that:

‘Members of these paramilitary groups continue to engage in violent activity, both directed by local leadership and conducted without sanction’.

It says that,

‘members of all groups have carried out murders since the 1998 Belfast Agreement’.

In addition, the assessment makes it clear that:

‘Members of these paramilitary groups, to different degrees, are also involved in other serious criminal activity. This includes large scale smuggling operations, fuel laundering, drug dealing and extortion’.

Regarding weapons, the assessment says that:

‘Although the majority of paramilitary weapons were decommissioned, some were not’.

On the purpose of these groups, the report concludes that:

‘It is our firm assessment that the leaderships of the main paramilitary groups are committed to peaceful means to achieve their political objectives’,

but that,

‘we judge that individual members of paramilitary groups with a legacy of violent activity still represent a threat to national security’.

The report is in no doubt that these groups,

‘cause serious harm to the communities in which they are embedded and undermine support for policing’.

On the individual groups, the assessment confirms:

‘The structures of the UVF remain in existence and there are some indications of recruitment’.

It states:

‘The UVF’s leadership has attempted to steer its membership towards peaceful initiatives and to carve out a new constructive role in representing the loyalist community’.

However, the assessment goes on to confirm that,

‘a larger number of members, including some senior figures, are extensively involved in organised crime’.

UVF members are also involved in paramilitary assaults. In respect of the UDA, the assessment concludes that while its structures remain in existence they have ‘become increasingly fragmented’ and are split into ‘discrete geographic areas’ that ‘act almost completely autonomously’. The assessment states:

‘With the support of some leadership figures, there are UDA members who have continued attempts to steer the group into positive community-based activism’.

Others, however, remain engaged in criminality and violence, with individual members and some senior figures involved in organised crime, including,

‘drug dealing, robbery, extortion and the distribution of counterfeit and contraband goods’.

There is also involvement in paramilitary assaults, street disorder and violent protest.

In respect of the Provisional IRA, the assessment says:

‘The structures of PIRA remain in existence in a much reduced form’,


‘a senior leadership, the ‘Provisional Army Council’ … and some ‘departments’’.

The authors of the report do not believe that the group is actively recruiting. They state that, while decommissioning took place between 2001 and 2005, the Provisional IRA continues to have access to some weapons. However the assessment judges that,

‘PIRA has not conducted organised procurement of new weaponry in the period since the last IMC report of 2011’.

While the assessment states that,

‘PIRA members believe that the’,

Provisional Army Council,

‘oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy’,

it judges that this has a ‘wholly political focus’. The report points out:

‘Individual PIRA members remain involved in criminal activity, such as large scale smuggling, and there have been isolated incidents of violence, including murders’.

The report concludes that:

‘The PIRA of the Troubles era is well beyond recall. It is our firm assessment that PIRA’s leadership remains committed to the peace process and its aim of achieving a united Ireland by political means. The group is not involved in targeting or conducting terrorist attacks against the state’.

That is a direct quote from the assessment, and I will not seek to hide from the House that much of the assessment makes very uncomfortable reading. These organisations should never have existed in the first place, and 21 years after the first ceasefires, it is clearly unacceptable that they still exist today. For all that, the assessment judges the leaderships of the main paramilitary groups to be committed to peaceful means—such groupings have no place in a democratic society.

Members of these groups continue to exert a malign influence, which, as the assessment puts it,

‘harms communities and damages the financial prosperity and reputation of Northern Ireland’.

Inevitably, a document of this kind does not provide all the answers but I hope it will assist in identifying the nature and scale of the problem, and in framing the debate about the way forward. Working with the main political parties and society more broadly, we need a strategy to lead us to a point where these organisations no longer exist and their influence is removed from Northern Ireland once and for all.

That is one of the two main goals of the talks I am chairing at Stormont, and it is an outcome to which all parties say they are committed. The other goal is to secure the full implementation of the Stormont House agreement. I believe that those talks represent the best chance of making progress on both these crucial issues and the best chance of finding a way forward that builds a brighter, more secure future for everyone in Northern Ireland. We all now need to engage intensively in those talks in the days ahead, and I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I thank the Minister, the Government and the Secretary of State for giving us advance sight of the Statement. We would also like to join in the Government’s thanks to the members of the independent panel for the report. It is a serious report, and one which we know will be read by the families of the victims. Those families and those victims must be, and are, very much in our thoughts today.

Does the Minister agree that at the heart of the undeniable progress that has been made in Northern Ireland is trust—trust in the institutions, trust in the democratic process and, crucially, trust between parties and politicians? Surely that trust is founded on the knowledge that we in Westminster have confirmed that any change of any kind in Northern Ireland must be by the principle of consent. There must be and will be support for that principle. Above all, there must be a belief in the principle of the rule of law. That core principle has to be paramount and at the centre of the continuing progress in Northern Ireland. We should not forget that the work of the PSNI remains crucial to that.

The current political crisis in Northern Ireland was sparked by allegations surrounding the murders of Mr McGuigan and Mr Davison. Will the Minister tell us what the report actually says about these murders and the extent of any paramilitary activity beyond what he has already said?

To reach its conclusion, the panel had to access sensitive intelligence. Will the Minister confirm that the panel obtained all the intelligence that it asked for? Crucially, will the Minister tell us whether he believes that the assessment of the independent panel and its report today provides a basis for an end to the political crisis in Northern Ireland? Will the Government, through the Secretary of State, be convening urgent talks? If not, what do the Government expect to happen and what will they do? Will the Minister also update the House on the current situation with respect to the Stormont House agreement and when the Bill is intended to be published?

The reaction of the Northern Ireland parties to the panel’s conclusions is obviously of huge importance. Have the Government had any preliminary discussions with the parties on this matter? It is also important to know the view of the Irish Government. Can the Minister say what discussions have been had with them?

As has been stated, we fully support what the Minister and the Government have said: paramilitary activity has no place in Northern Ireland. The vast majority of the people do not want it and, I believe, neither do their politicians. Does the Minister agree that it is for the police to enforce the law? They should, of course, be accountable, but their independence is crucial. No paramilitary activity is acceptable, whether it is remnants of the IRA or loyalist paramilitaries. Will the Minister tell us what measures the Government intend to take as a result of the report? Much of the focus has been, understandably, on the IRA, but can the Minister tell us what the view of loyalist paramilitaries is? Do the Government believe that the establishment of the Loyalist Community Council is a good thing?

There are bits of hope in the Statement, and one of the crucial conclusions is that:

“None of these groups is planning or conducting terrorist attacks”.

Does the Minister agree that the existence and cohesion of these groups since the ceasefire have played an important role in enabling the transition from extreme violence to political progress? If so, what does that mean for the future?

Do the Government accept, as we do, what the report says about it being individual members of paramilitary groups who pose the real threat? Although much of the focus is on threats to national security, is it not unacceptable that groups are involved in what the report describes as,

“large-scale smuggling operations, fuel laundering, drug dealing and extortion of local businesses”

—in other words, gangsterism? It is therefore surely right that we should restate our support for the work of the PSNI in tackling this scourge, especially in the poorer areas where these goings-on take place.

Once again, there is no doubt that hugely difficult issues have arisen in Northern Ireland which are an immense challenge to the politicians there and indeed to all who seek to support them as they emerge from the horrors of the past. We know, though, that time and time again politicians in Northern Ireland have risen to the challenge and have found a way forward. They have dealt with seemingly intractable problems. Is it not time for all of us to restate once again the fundamentals of the agreements which have brought us to where we are, and to reassert the principles of trust, sensitivity and mutual respect on which so much progress has been made?

I end with a quote from my honourable friend Vernon Coaker made today in the other place. He said: “So many people have said to me, ‘I don’t want my children or grandchildren to suffer as I have done’”. Vernon Coaker said in response: “Let us all find a way once again to ensure that this aspiration remains a reality”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, for repeating the Statement; indeed, I also thank the PSNI, MI5 and my noble friend Lord Carlile’s trio for the work they have done. We recognise and remember today that one of the reasons for this Statement is because there are victims and families who we must be thinking about.

Of course, I have not seen the underlying document, but only the Statement which has been repeated today. It states that the main paramilitary groups which operated during the Troubles are still in existence, but that there is a positive in that none of these groups is planning or conducting terrorist attacks and that the leadership of the main paramilitary groups is committed to achieving their political objectives. We should note the word “leadership”. On the negative side the members of these groups—it does not say the leadership—are to different degrees involved in serious criminal activity: large-scale smuggling, fuel laundering, drug dealing and extortion. It is now 17 years since the Belfast agreement and these organisations still exist. They have not been disbanded or wound up or ceased to function. One might ask when that will happen. It seems that those who have previously been involved in paramilitary activity 17 or more years ago still have a sense of fraternity. Can not the Stormont Government and the Irish Government assist the leadership of these organisations to convert these former terrorists into groups of law-abiding old boys’ or comrades’ associations, or turn them into new organisations that do positive work in Northern Ireland?

It would be helpful if the Minister could give us an update, if it is possible, now that the Statement has been aired and published, on what the future is for the Stormont Government and whether we are likely to see a proper resumption of activities there.

I thank the noble Lords for their responses and for their continuing support for eradicating from Northern Ireland the scourge of paramilitary activity and providing justice for all of its victims. I am sure that noble Lords from all parts of the House will wish to send a strong message to all of Northern Ireland’s main parties about the need to unite together in a commitment to ending this activity once and for all, to making the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland work effectively again and to resolving the very real political and financial problems that Northern Ireland faces. I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, said about trust, the paramount importance of the rule of law and the principle of consent. We must all give the PSNI our full support in the very difficult and important job that it is doing.

I shall address some of the specific points made on the Kevin McGuigan murder. The assessment confirms that the chief constable’s August statement remains valid. I can confirm that the reviewers have been shown classified material. They also had access to individuals who put the assessment together and an opportunity to probe and challenge those authors. I agree with the noble Lord that the assessment does indeed provide a basis for agreement, even if it does not in itself provide all the answers to the many questions that have been raised.

There is now a pressing need for the parties to decide the best way of dealing with paramilitary activity. The assessment will help inform the urgent and intensive discussions that now need to take place. Of course, there have already been extensive discussions between the UK Government, the five parties and the Irish Government on implementing the Stormont House agreement. With regard to the introduction of the legislation, detailed work is still ongoing.

The noble Lord mentioned the loyalist initiative of the Loyalist Communities Council. I think that any initiative that helps to move people from criminality to a more positive way should be welcomed; but as the Secretary of State said in the other place, it must be judged on the results that it produces. In terms of what was said about helping the transition, I think the Secretary of State said in the other place that the assessment provides a mixed picture but some of the aspects in the assessment are not completely negative. I very much agree with what has been said about smuggling and extortion: they have no place in a civilised society.

The priority now is to have these urgent and intensive talks and to get the parties round the table. I hope this assessment will provide an important basis for moving that forward constructively.

My Lords, I welcome the publication of this comprehensive assessment. I ask the Minister to refer to paragraphs 12 and 13. Paragraph 12, with regard to the Provisional IRA, states that,

“some ‘departments’ with specific responsibilities”,

are still in existence. Is it not the case that the team of leading republicans who conducted an inquiry into the killing of Davison—which inquiry led them to conclude that McGuigan was responsible for that, which led then to the killing of McGuigan—were members of one of those departments with specific responsibilities, and it would have been part of their responsibilities to report their actions to the leadership of the republican movement?

With regard to paragraph 13, which refers to large-scale smuggling and other money-raising activities, as has been mentioned, is it not the case that the primary purpose of those criminal activities is to generate income for the republican movement to finance its political focus and objectives? This enables Sinn Fein to have the highest income of any political party in the British Isles. Should we not think about cleaning up this aspect of our political process?

I note very carefully what my noble friend says, but I do not wish to speculate on detail that goes beyond the assessment. I note the conclusions in paragraph 13, which is the important basis on which we need to move forward. We judge that this strategy has a wholly political focus, that the PIRA of the Troubles era is well beyond recall and that PIRA’s leadership remains committed to the peace process. I do not wish to minimise for a minute the challenges that we still have. The important thing is to use this assessment to inform the urgent and intensive discussions that now need to take place among the five parties to resolve and eradicate for ever paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the PSNI has the tools it needs to do the job? One of the real problems we see in Northern Ireland is that the paramilitary movement is taking on smuggling, drug dealing and that sort of thing. These are areas that the police should be involved in. I am still not convinced that the chief constable and the Police Service of Northern Ireland have all the resources they need to stop what is happening there. If these things were happening over here on the mainland, we would not in all conscience accept that the police could not deal with them. I hope the Minister can give me some assurance that the Government support what the Police Service of Northern Ireland is doing.

We are of course very supportive of what the PSNI is doing. I am sure noble Lords from all parts of the House will want to ensure that the PSNI has all the support it needs to do the very difficult and important job that it has got to do. The UK Government have provided additional funding in the order of £230 million over the last five years. It also highlights the importance of resolving the very pressing budget and welfare issues. That is absolutely crucial to finding the right way through all this.

My Lords, there is no comfort in this report for the communities of Northern Ireland, as it only reinforces what has been common knowledge in Northern Ireland for many years. But now that we have all this intelligence and it is all known—I follow on from the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris—will the police take further action against these so-called paramilitary groups? When will we be honest and stop calling them paramilitaries? They are criminals: let us stop giving them an importance and a status that is not warranted or, indeed, ever justified.

It is absolutely right that the police need to pursue all leads and follow the evidence wherever it goes, because we want to bring to justice the perpetrators of any criminal actions. The issue is that, in order to bring criminals to justice, we need evidence, and sometimes it is difficult to obtain information from local communities, for reasons that are well known to noble Lords. I agree absolutely with the noble Baroness’s sentiment that we need to bring criminals to justice and leave no stone unturned in that mission.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the Statement and on the tone with which it was delivered, because this matter is fundamental. There will continue to be debates on some of the key points, in particular whether—as the Secretary of State said in the other place—there is no evidence that money obtained by crime is being used for political purposes. If that is true—and I have no evidence to challenge that view—it is the first time in the modern history of the republican movement, provisional or official, that crime has been carried out purely for the individual advantage of members. It will be a real novelty if it is true.

However, the really important thing is what the Minister said at the end of the Statement, when he acknowledged that the assessment does not provide all the answers. The Secretary of State said in the other place that there are still important questions to be asked about paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. That tone is important. We have difficulties in the peace process not because of the dark side of certain developments—which the people of Northern Ireland well understand—but because, at the time of the re-creation of the institutions, certain achievements of the IRA ceasefire were oversold. Claims were made—that there would be no further recruitment, that the IRA had ceased to exist entirely—that, in retrospect, no longer stand up to examination. The people of Northern Ireland are well aware of that.

This is a difficult situation, but it could be got through by the Government maintaining a constantly honest, open and questioning attitude to the realities. That would help the peace process. Does the noble Lord agree?

I very much agree with what the noble Lord said. I do not wish to add to what the Secretary of State said in the other place, but I agree that tone is important—being open, transparent and not shying away from the difficult questions that have to be addressed. That is what the job will be over the coming days as the talks proceed.

My Lords, I also thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I especially thank the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, and his two colleagues for the work they did in making this assessment.

The assessment clearly states that the Sinn Fein/IRA high command, the Provisional Army Council, remains in existence. It further states that members believe that the Army Council oversees IRA/Sinn Fein strategy. Past Army Council membership included senior Sinn Fein politicians. Do Her Majesty’s Government believe that the current Army Council includes Sinn Fein politicians? Further, following on from the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, what is the Government’s assessment of the role and purpose of the PIRA departments, as emphasised in the assessment?

I echo what was said about the reviewers. They bring great experience and integrity to the job they were given. The links between PIRA and Sinn Fein are long-standing and well known. As I said, I do not wish to speculate on further detail beyond what is in the assessment.

My Lords, I also welcome the Statement. It certainly gives us further insight into paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland and its structures, more than anything else. Some of us in this House certainly did not need a report to tell us that paramilitary structures are still very much there in Northern Ireland. Also, it is important that we say it clears the chief constable when he said a number of weeks ago that paramilitary organisations still exist and the IRA were involved in the murder of Mr McGuigan. It is important that that is repeated.

On the issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, raised, I have to say that we do give them a platform if we describe them as “paramilitary organisations”. We need to get away from that. They are criminals and should be dealt with by the PSNI. I have some worries whether the PSNI has the proper resources to deal with the criminality, which is not just right across Northern Ireland but right across the island of Ireland, on both sides of the border. I have said for some time that there are issues in and around resources for the PSNI. It is something that the Government should look at seriously.

On the other issue that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, raised, I would go much further. We have seen the report today and we have heard the Statement. I have believed for some time that the criminality and the money made from criminality goes to political parties. We should say that. We have a political party on the island of Ireland that is almost the richest anywhere in Europe. It is the second-richest party in Europe. That is something that the Government ought to look at and continue to look at: whether that criminality and those unearned gains are going to a particular party.

I ask the Minister: do the Government see a further role for this panel in Northern Ireland, as we try to move on the political process? I hope that the Statement helps the political process to move on. That is important.

I thank the noble Lord. With regard to his question on whether I see a role for the review panel, I am not certain about that. However, it is certainly true to say that, as part of the talks process, there needs to be discussion and agreement over a verification mechanism and a broader strategy to see paramilitary groups disband once and for all.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, said, it is no surprise that these paramilitary groups exist, so it is very important that talks continue to take place. However, the perpetual lesson from Northern Ireland is that when there is a vacuum, the Government must fill it. There is a case here for saying that perhaps the Government have not been robust enough in that area. I am mindful of the Protestant paramilitary groups. I remember talking to them just after the peace process many years ago. They said that they did not get support for building community structures and that they felt isolated from the mainstream unionist community as well as from the rest of Northern Ireland. So there is a case for having active community polices in recognition of the high unemployment, deprivation and poverty there. If we do not support the enlightened members of those communities, they will remain isolated and we will not be able to tackle the problem at root. That is a lesson for the Government.

I agree with the noble Lord about the need to support community groups. That is very much part of the long-term solution here. The Government are leaving no stone unturned to keep the five parties around the table focused on the twin objectives of dealing with this paramilitary activity and implementing the Stormont House agreement. That is what we will be focused on in the coming days.

We have heard a depressing report and been told that a strategy to address it is being discussed at Stormont—discussions which have been going on for some time. Can the Government say when those discussions are likely to conclude? I think that a month was indicated when we last discussed Northern Ireland in this House. Can the Government say what they will do if the talks should fail? Of course, we hope that they are crowned by success but, if they fail, what will the Government do?

We hope that the talks can conclude swiftly but I will not put a specific timetable on that. I do not think that it would be helpful for me to speculate on what might happen in the event of failure. We are working very hard for success.

My Lords, I refer the Minister to page 11 of the Statement and the paragraph in it that my noble friend Lord Rogan mentioned. I also associate myself with the thanks expressed to the panel for its work. However, this goes beyond what the chief constable said in August this year. The paragraph on which I wish to focus states that,

“the assessment states that: ‘PIRA members believe that the PAC’”—

that is, the Provisional Army Council—

“‘oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy’”.

Will the Minister, on behalf of the Government, tell the House whether or not the Government accept this paragraph of the report?

The Secretary of State said in the other place that we did accept the assessment in this report, which has been reviewed by three very credible, experienced reviewers of high integrity.