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Greater urgency called for in tackling Northern Ireland paramilitary activity

Published 21/04/2016

The legislation aims to implement parts of two political deals in the wake of last year's crisis which took Stormont to the brink of collapse
The legislation aims to implement parts of two political deals in the wake of last year's crisis which took Stormont to the brink of collapse

Greater urgency has been called for in tackling paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

Peers heard the Independent Reporting Commission could act as "a very important escape valve" for events that threaten to destabilise the country's fragile power-sharing administration.

However, it was argued that only requiring the body to report annually was insufficient.

The call for the body to report twice a year came during the committee stage of the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Bill.

The proposed legislation aims to implement parts of two political deals in the wake of last year's crisis which took Stormont to the brink of collapse.

It includes plans to establish a commission which would take a lead role in trying to end paramilitary activity.

Pressing for more frequent reporting by the body, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Alderdice said: "It's going to take four or five years before you have got a handful of reports to see what is actually happening.

"I don't get a sense that there is sufficient urgency and I doubt very much it will be perceived as sufficiently urgent in the minds of many people in Northern Ireland.

"They want, on a regular basis, but on a relatively-frequent basis, to hear what is happening and what is going on.

"Is it enough to come back only once a year?

"An annual report is the sort of thing you produce in a company to fulfil the regulatory requirements and to provide information for shareholders.

"It's not the sort of thing you produce when you feel a sense of urgency that major changes need to take place."

He sought an assurance that there would be a "maintained momentum" for people in Northern Ireland, who were at times "despairing and at other times frustrated and impatient at the lack of progress on this important issue".

He was backed by Lord Empey of the Ulster Unionists, who said the creation of the commission had reassured people that it would "shine a light" on what was going on.

He told peers: "This commission has the power to give reassurance to people that the paramilitary issue is being dealt with and is being reported on.

"I think it's not an unreasonable thing to ask that that reporting mechanism is brought forward to six months.

"I think that could be a very important escape valve for events that may occur which could destabilise the institutions once again."

Lord Empey also questioned the appointment process to the commission, and a sked whether there could be an alternative mechanism.

He said: "The people who could be involved in that appointment are not necessarily independent.

"One of them at least is someone who is a self-confessed member of a paramilitary organisation.

"I would much prefer a more independent appointment process where the people are not simply put in as stooges but are people who will be genuinely free and independent and able to make a judgment without being somebody's clone, and that is the risk that I think exists with the present arrangements."

Responding for the Government, Lord Dunlop said the commission was one of the measures aimed at tackling paramilitarism, which he said had been a "scourge" on Northern Ireland society for many years.

But he said a balance had to be struck between it reporting back and allowing sufficient time for progress to be made.

However, he indicated the body could report more frequently, as the final agreement to establish the commission was still under discussion.

Regarding Lord Empey's concerns on appointments, the Tory peer said the Government felt Northern Ireland's First Minister and deputy First Minister were the most appropriate office holders to nominate the two members on behalf of the executive.

"It's intended to ensure a collaborative approach," said Lord Dunlop.

Later, Lord Empey called for perpetrators of violence to be made ineligible for compensation under victims and survivors' legislation.

He warned there was no distinction currently between the perpetrator and the victim, and this was an issue which would have to be confronted sooner or later.

Lord Dunlop said he was sympathetic to the feeling behind Lord Empey's demand, but the matter was best resolved by the political parties in Northern Ireland.

Institutions dealing with the legacy of the past may be the subject of future legislation, but only if sufficient consensus could be established.

Lord Dunlop said the definition of a victim was a matter of "considerable contention" and remained an area of disagreement yet to be resolved.

The Government believed there was an "unquestionable distinction between innocent victims and perpetrators" but this was a difficult and complex issue.

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