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Parties to resume talks as Villiers orders review of paramilitary activity

By Liam Clarke

Published 19/09/2015

Simon Hamilton, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster at Stormont Castle yesterday
Simon Hamilton, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster at Stormont Castle yesterday
David Ford
Kevin McGuigan
Martin McGuinness

All-party talks look set to resume on Monday after the Secretary of State ordered an independent assessment of paramilitary activity.

After conferring with the Prime Minister, Theresa Villiers produced the compromise which offered comfort to unionists without provoking a republican withdrawal. The key element of her proposals is for the body to assess the state of paramilitary groups following the murder of Kevin McGuigan.

Police say the murder of the former IRA hitman was carried out by other IRA members acting with a criminal extortion gang in what they thought was revenge for an earlier murder allegedly carried out by Mr McGuigan.

Ms Villiers said: "The Government has commissioned a factual assessment from the UK security agencies and the PSNI on the structure, role and purpose of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland.

"This assessment will be independently reviewed and checked by three individuals who I will appoint. Their names will be announced early next week. This assessment will be published by mid-October and will be available to inform the parties' discussions and conclusions in the cross-party talks."

It was a surprise to some that gardai were not involved in the assessment, although one unionist source said MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, could liaise with them.

An additional possibility is that a Garda or Department of Justice figure could sit on the three-strong assessment panel. The Irish government is backing this review but only if it is quick and Ms Villiers said it would be ready for the planned end of the talks next month.

Ms Villiers also said that the main parties here and the Irish government were all determined "to redouble efforts to tackle links between paramilitary organisations and organised crime."

She praised the work of the Organised Crime Task Force set up by David Ford, the Justice Minister. "I know that during next week's talks, all the five Northern Ireland parties intend to discuss what more can be done to strengthen those efforts."

She predicted there would be more money for this work.

"I want to explore with urgency what further support we can give them through the relevant bodies for which we have responsibility, such as HMRC and the National Crime Agency. I also intend to establish dedicated funding aimed at increasing the capability of agencies working to tackle criminality and organised crime associated with paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. It will support agencies to enhance specialist capabilities, such as forensic accounting, to strengthen their capacity to seize criminal assets."

She said she would be working with Irish ministers about a joint crackdown on cross-border crime. "I would value the opportunity to work with ministers on both sides of the border, to ensure the most efficient use of our collective resources to tackle organised criminals operating in both jurisdictions."

Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein didn't think the monitoring body was necessary, but accepted it as a way to get into talks.

"We will work with the other parties to tackle the issue of armed groups which want to drag us back to the past, including active unionist paramilitaries and armed republican dissidents, and organised criminals who are a blight on the community" he pledged.

Mr Robinson was the happiest. "Today's statement by the Secretary of State is a welcome first step in demonstrating that the Government is taking our concerns seriously. We recognise the Secretary of State is now taking action to address the two concerns we had raised. We have consistently argued that, ultimately, the business of determining the long-term steps to address paramilitary links must be addressed and resolved through the talks." He stated.

"On the basis of the Secretary of State's statement today, we will be participating in the talks on Monday" he added.

Mike Nesbitt said the UUP would also be there.

However, Mr Robinson suggested that DUP ministers would continue resigning and being reappointed each week until the talks concluded.

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