Beefed-up justice measures part of blueprint for tackling paramilitarism
Beefed-up justice measures, new decommissioning mechanisms and school visits by reformed gunmen are included in a proposed blueprint for tackling paramilitarism in Northern Ireland.
An independent panel tasked by the Stormont Executive to examine ways to finally stamp out paramilitary activity in the region has made a total of 43 recommendations.
They are a mix of deterrent and encouragement, with some proposals designed to crack down on offenders while others focus on smoothing the path of ex-paramilitaries to reintegrate into a lawful society.
The Stormont ministers will now use the panel's report to devise their own strategy for ending the scourge of paramilitarism.
The panel was set up as part of the landmark Fresh Start political agreement struck between the Democratic Unionists, Sinn Fein and the British and Irish governments last year. The accord resolved a political crisis sparked by a murder linked to the Provisional IRA.
The panel said while paramilitary activity has greatly reduced over the course of the peace process, with the main groups remaining on ceasefire, it said some members and former members continued to engage in violence, intimidation and other crime.
"Their activities impact on the economic and social development of Northern Ireland and the wellbeing of individuals and communities," the panel's report said.
"It is this harmful impact on society that the Executive's strategy will need to address."
The panel comprised of erstwhile Stormont speaker Lord Alderdice, former politician Monica McWilliams and solicitor John McBurney.
Their recommendations are covered by four main themes - promoting lawfulness; support for transition; tackling criminal activity; and addressing systemic issues.
While the experts noted that the main groups were no longer engaged in political violence, they said there was a reluctance among members to consider themselves disbanded, suggesting that such a move would diminish their masculinity.
Recommendations in the report included steps to:
:: Promote lawfulness and active citizenship to help increase the public's willingness to give information to the police
:: Divert increased recourse to community policing efforts to help build confidence in the service
:: Engaging with schools and youth groups to dissuade youths from becoming involved, with former paramilitaries identified as potentially influential speakers
:: Review how official bodies engage and communicate with paramilitary groups
:: Review bail policies amid suggestion it is granted more readily in Northern Ireland than elsewhere
:: Speed up court proceedings
:: Implement moves to describe activities as criminal rather than paramilitary
:: Review organised crime legislation
:: Set up a dedicated fund to support restorative justice initiatives
:: Consider new mechanisms that could be used to facilitate future acts of decommissioning
:: Review employment, adoption, lending and travel regulations and policies with the aim of removing some obstacles currently experienced by former paramilitaries
:: Divert extra funding to employment and education initiatives in deprived communities
:: Review separated arrangements for paramilitary affiliated inmates inside prisons, with the aim of ended the policy in the long term
:: Encourage initiatives to bring an end to dissident republican violence
:: And set "ambitious targets" to end segregation in housing and education.
The report recommended the establishment of a separate unit within the Stormont Executive to examine and research the issues related to ending paramilitarism.
First Minister Arlene Foster welcomed the report's publication.
"We would very much like to thank the three members of the panel for the very strenuous work that they carried out," she said.
"We are very pleased with the work they carried out and now we will work to put that into an action plan following on from the Fresh Start Agreement."
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the report represented a "very important element" of the Fresh Start deal.
He described it as "thorough and wide-ranging".
"Now we will bring this report to the Executive and a strategy will be put in place based on implementing the recommendations in the report," he added.
Justice Minister Claire Sugden added: "I am excited to see this report published today.
"I think it's the way forward. It's a great example of how our government is going to work together and this report encourages it.
"In the coming weeks and days this will start to play out and I think it will be a very positive thing for Northern Ireland."