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Northern Ireland: Paramilitary Groups

Volume 803: debated on Monday 15 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support they are giving to (1) journalists, and (2) politicians, in Northern Ireland who have received death threats from paramilitary groups.

My Lords, journalists play a vital role in our society, as do the public representatives who have defended press freedoms. It is unacceptable that they should find themselves threatened for doing their job. We give the fullest possible support to efforts to tackle the threat from groups involved in terrorism and paramilitarism in Northern Ireland, supporting the PSNI with additional security funding and the Northern Ireland Executive’s programme to tackle paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the recent death threats to journalists and politicians in Northern Ireland from paramilitary groups are, quite frankly, beyond despicable and have no place in any society based on democracy and the rule of law? The 2015 fresh start agreement, which I helped to negotiate, contained a number of commitments to tackle paramilitary activity. However, while some progress has been made, it is limited. Does he agree that everyone in Northern Ireland should be able to go about their daily business without threat or the fear of threat, and that we now urgently need a renewed, serious effort to put all paramilitary groups—they were never justified in the past and have no justification today—out of business for good?

My noble friend makes some excellent points. I read his article this morning and share his frustration. Ending paramilitarism and the harm caused by it is a priority in the new programme for government. He will know that these are complex issues which require a long-term approach. A targeted approach to tackling paramilitarism across the Executive is also recognised in the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Caine, has said, these threats to journalists and politicians are outrageous. What about terrorist attacks, such as those on Jennifer McNern, who lost both her legs? This week she is having to drag herself to the High Court in Belfast to force the Northern Ireland Executive to meet their legal responsibility to implement the victims payments scheme for those, like her, severely injured through no fault of their own. Is it not utterly shameful that the Secretary of State, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have still not resolved the funding and other issues so retraumatising Jennifer in this way?

The noble Lord has made these points before. He is absolutely right that we must put the victims first but, as he will know, the key to unblocking progress is the designation of a department to provide administrative support to the victims’ payments board. The Justice Minister has indicated that she is prepared to take on that role, and I reassure the noble Lord that the Secretary of State is working as hard as he can to take matters forward. It is urgent.

My Lords, whether it is paramilitaries intimidating politicians and journalists in Northern Ireland or fascists beating up photographers in Parliament Square just this weekend, such actions represent a direct assault on our democracy. Will the Government therefore consider whether an aggravated criminal offence is necessary to deal with those who attempt to impede our democracy in this way?

I take note of the noble Lord’s point. To echo his thoughts, I say that a free, independent media is a cornerstone of our democracy. It is vital that the media and elected representatives can continue their work without the fear of attack or threat.

My Lords, I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Caine, that when the Secretary of State next meets representatives of the republican movement he could remind them that they were admitted into the talks process only when they committed themselves to democratic and peaceful means. That commitment has somewhat frayed after senior members of the republican movement have tried to justify the terrorist campaign. We have to take that seriously. It reminds me of how we made the Belfast agreement—to which, incidentally, the recent actions of the republicans have been contrary. We did so by voting. All the parties voted for it, and then Sinn Féin did not support the agreement. That tells you something about the character of the organisation. I quote from somewhere else: the maintenance of peace requires constant vigilance.

My Lords, these are complex issues, which demand a long-term, thoughtful approach. The UK and Irish Governments, and each of the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, including Sinn Féin, made a clear commitment to tackle paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. The paramilitary crime task force has also reported a number of successful investigations into and disruptions of the activities of republican paramilitary groups.

My Lords, it would be foolhardy not to recognise and be sensitive to the many current challenges of Northern Ireland. Are the Government open to think afresh or amend any policy, possibly in consultation with Brussels and Dublin, to ensure that a peaceful environment in Northern Ireland continues to be built upon, with hope and well-being? While I concur that intimidation should be taken seriously and that democracies should never yield to these threats, which will lead nowhere, what advice is special security offering, and which terrorist group or groups are threatening politicians and journalism?

The noble Viscount makes a good point, which is that all parties must continue to work together. The Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Executive are working very hard with them to achieve what he sets out: namely, a permanent, long-lasting peace. There is absolutely no place in any society for threats or violence, and certainly not in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the solidarity across all parties in Northern Ireland, civic society and the two Governments on this issue should send a clear signal to these paramilitary thugs that they have no place in the Northern Ireland of today? Will he accept that further reconciliation will be improved by the immediate granting of pensions to victims of the Troubles, as mentioned earlier by my noble friend Lord Hain?

I have certainly answered the question on victims’ payments. The noble Lord is right: there is absolutely no place for dissident terrorists or paramilitary groups to exert control over communities through violence or threats, or to exploit those communities for their own ends. Those involved in these groups offer nothing but harm to communities.

There is absolutely no justification for any threats to journalists or politicians that raise the prospect of a descent back into the spectre of violence that the Good Friday agreement sought to end. I am a member of the National Union of Journalists, and journalists and politicians must be free to report facts and express opinions right across the political and community spectrums, while avoiding amplifying inflammatory statements that could encourage conflict and violence. Does the Minister agree?

I agree, and the noble Lord will know that the campaign by the National Union of Journalists is important. Journalists play a vital role in Northern Ireland, and I say again that they must be free at all times to do their jobs without fear of violence. The Secretary of State made that clear last month when he signed the public statement issued by the National Union of Journalists.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister give a commitment to meet, as a matter of some urgency, representatives of the National Union of Journalists to discuss practical steps that can be taken to avoid endangerment of life?

I will certainly take that back to the Northern Ireland Office and speak to my noble friend about it offline. The PSNI works tirelessly to prevent crime and harm to individuals, including journalists, and it is important to bring those responsible before the courts. It has and must have our fullest possible support.

My Lords, the noble Viscount said that we had to take a long-term, thoughtful approach to these matters. It is now 22 years since the Belfast agreement was ratified by referendum, yet every single one of the paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, plus a few that have developed since, are still functioning. Surely that demonstrates the need for an absolutely fresh start regarding tackling this paramilitary violence.

I stick by my lines: it is a long-term matter, and I am sure that the noble Lord will agree. We have worked with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure a clear, strategic approach: long-term intervention, building confidence in the justice system, tackling criminal activity, and building capacity to support transition. There is no complacency. We need to move as fast as we can, but that is the strategy.