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Independent Reporting Commission: Fifth Substantive Report

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 7 December 2022

I have received the fifth substantive report from the Independent Reporting Commission.

The commission was established following the Fresh Start agreement of November 2015 to report on progress towards ending paramilitary activity. That agreement set out the Northern Ireland Executive’s commitments around tackling paramilitary activity and associated criminality, and led to a programme of work to deliver a Northern Ireland Executive action plan. It also provided the framework for the UK Government, the Executive and law enforcement agencies, working with partners in Ireland, to work together to tackle the challenges of organised crime, paramilitarism and terrorism. In the New Decade, New Approach agreement in January 2020, a commitment was made to ongoing work to tackle paramilitarism, and this work continues, including through a second phase of the Northern Ireland Executive programme.

This fifth substantive report builds on the work already undertaken by the commissioners. I welcome the progress it highlights in a number of areas, including disruptions to paramilitary groups as a result of operations by the paramilitary crime taskforce, the downward trend in some aspects of paramilitary activity demonstrated by Police Service of Northern Ireland security statistics, and the reduction in the Northern Ireland-related terrorism threat level from severe to substantial. I also welcome the success and positive impact, noted by the commissioners, that the programme for tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime is having through its focus on the development of a whole of Government approach, and joined-up and integrated working across the public, community and voluntary sectors, and through its emphasis on interventions informed by strong evidence and data.

Yet the report also notes that the problem of paramilitarism is enduring. The criminal activity and coercive control exercised by paramilitary groups continue to cause harm to communities and individuals across Northern Ireland. A number of incidents in recent weeks have demonstrated the callous disregard that paramilitary groups, or those who claim affiliation with them, have for public safety, and the harm and disruption they continue to cause to the communities they often claim to represent.

The commissioners have set out a number of recommendations on how the effort to tackle paramilitarism can be enhanced, including a recommendation for the UK Government, and others, on the need for a formal process of engagement with paramilitary groups aimed at facilitating their transition towards disbandment. We will continue to consider this recommendation through engagement with representatives of Northern Ireland political parties, the Northern Ireland Executive, the Irish Government, with civic society and community representatives in Northern Ireland, and with the Independent Reporting Commission.

Paramilitarism was never justified in the past and cannot be justified today. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, it is important that we remind ourselves of the extraordinary progress that has been made since then on peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. Yet it is clear that a sustained effort is required here over the long term to tackle the enduring problem of paramilitarism. We remain committed to delivering our vision of a safer Northern Ireland and to working with partners to support efforts against the enduring threat and harms posed to communities by terrorist and paramilitary groups.

Political leadership from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland is essential to ensure it remains clear that there is no place for paramilitarism, or the division it stems from, in Northern Ireland. It is a matter of profound disappointment that the local political parties have been unable to restore fully functioning devolved institutions. The lack of a functioning Executive inhibits Northern Ireland Departments from taking a strategic, cross-cutting approach to tackling paramilitarism in partnership with the PSNI and the wider public sector. It remains my top priority to rectify the present situation.

Finally, I would like to express my thanks to the commissioners for their continued work reporting on progress towards ending paramilitarism.