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'Important step to more peaceful Northern Ireland' welcomed, as MPs back Bill

Published 10/03/2016

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There was a "question mark" over whether Martin McGuinness was still linked to the IRA Army Council, the UUP's Tom Elliott said

A "crucial step" on the journey towards ridding Northern Ireland of paramilitary activity has been taken, Theresa Villiers has said, as MPs backed a key piece of legislation.

The Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Bill seeks to implement parts of two political deals aimed at protecting the country's faltering power-sharing administration and it includes plans to establish a commission on paramilitary activity.

It also proposes making Assembly members commit to challenging paramilitary activity.

The Bill today cleared the Commons and Ms Villiers praised it as an "important step towards a more peaceful, prosperous and stable Northern Ireland".

During an earlier committee stage debate of the Bill, concerns were raised about allowing Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to play a role in appointing members to the commission because of his IRA past.

Speaking during the Bill's third reading, Ms Villiers said the commission would help confine paramilitarism to the past.

The Northern Ireland Secretary said: "A crucial part of the Bill is to put into effect a treaty to be agreed between the UK and Irish governments that will establish the independent reporting commission which we see as a crucial step on the road to the day when paramilitarism in Northern Ireland is entirely something of the past rather than the present.

"The commission will both promote and report on progress towards ending paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland and all the pain and distress that it has caused in the past and sadly sometimes continues to do today."

Ms Villiers said that plans to make Assembly members promise to challenge paramilitary activity "take Northern Ireland's political parties further than ever before in their determination to see a complete end to paramilitary activity".

But she said it was a "matter of regret" that the setting up of organisations to deal with the legacy of violence in the country could not be included in the Bill.

Shadow Northern Ireland minister Stephen Pound said: "This is legislation moving forward, this is serious and sober legislation cementing the bricks in the architecture in a terrorist free Northern Ireland, a paramilitary free Northern Ireland, a Northern Ireland which will allow the innate genius of the people of Northern Ireland to flourish in a way they have too often in the past been denied to do so."

During committee stage, the Ulster Unionist Party's Tom Elliott (Fermanagh and South Tyrone) had warned against allowing Mr McGuinness to play a role in appointing members to the commission.

Mr Elliott added there was a "question mark" over whether Mr McGuinness was still linked to the IRA Army Council.

He suggested the Northern Ireland Policing Board would be a more independent body to decide two members of the Independent Reporting Commission, rather than allowing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to make a joint decision.

But Northern Ireland Minister Ben Wallace said giving the power to the Police Board would not be consistent with the Fresh Start Agreement.

The Bill contains an amended pledge of office designed to tackle paramilitarism which all ministers in the executive will have to take before they are allowed to take up their position and something similar for members of the Assembly.

Concerns were expressed by a number of MPs about how the undertaking would be enforced.

Lady Hermon, the independent MP for North Down, moved an amendment to require the Assembly to implement an enforcement scheme but it was defeated by 201 votes to nine, a majority of 192, after Mr Wallace said the Assembly would be responsible for how any breaches were dealt with.

The Bill will now go to the House of Lords for consideration.

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