Peter Robinson resumes First Minister duties after paramilitary review published
Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson has resumed his duties as Stormont First Minister and his resigned ministers have returned to office following the publication of a Government-ordered review of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.
The DUP last month disengaged with the power-sharing administration in Belfast amid a crisis sparked by a murder linked to the IRA.
The independent assessment of paramilitary structures, which was commissioned as Stormont lurched toward collapse, found that all the main republican and loyalist groups, including the Provisional IRA, still exist; that members have committed murders since the ceasefires of the 1990s; but that their leaders are now committed to peace.
While Mr Robinson said his party was returning to the Executive, he warned that Stormont's problems were not over and insisted on-going political talks aimed at resolving a raft of disputes besetting powersharing only had two weeks to find resolution.
"We really are only back for a couple of weeks while the talks process is concluded because unless we can resolve all of these outstanding issues we won't be able to have a sustainable Assembly and Executive," he said.
The DUP leader added: "We are at the sparring stage still but I think today marks the beginning of intensive discussions."
The review, ordered after the shooting of ex-IRA man Kevin McGuigan in August, said an IRA "Provisional Army Council" remains in place, and IRA members believe that ruling body "oversees" Sinn Fein's strategy.
Stormont's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness rejected those claims, insisting his party was the "only organisation" that represented the mainstream republican movement.
"As far as I am concerned Sinn Fein is the only republican organisation involved in the peace process, in democratic politics and in political activism," he said. "We take instructions from no one else."
Mr Robinson stood aside from his duties last month at the height of the political crisis, and three of the party's four other Executive ministers resigned.
They walked away from government when Sinn Fein's northern chairman Bobby Storey was arrested by detectives investigating the McGuigan murder. Mr Storey, who denied involvement, was later released without charge.
The party subsequently employed a controversial tactic of reappointing its ministers for a number of hours and then resigning them again, in a repeating cycle, to prevent the jobs being reallocated to other parties.
The number of DUP ministers out of office increased from three to four during this period, as the party took over a post vacated when the Ulster Unionists - a minor coalition partner - walked out of the administration outright.
Mr Robinson said the independent report had confirmed the assessment of Northern Ireland's police chief George Hamilton in August that individual members of the IRA were involved in the McGuigan murder but the leadership did not sanction it and was wedded to peace.
The party leader suggested the picture painted by Mr Hamilton was subsequently confused by the arrest of a senior Sinn Fein figure - Mr Storey.
He said the report had confirmed Mr Hamilton's view, rather than the "contradictory" implications that flowed from the arrest of Mr Storey.
On that basis, he said, he and his ministers were returning to their ministerial duties. The party policy of boycotting many Assembly sittings is also set to end.
"The review indicates that the leadership of the republican movement is committed to the peace process and is encouraging others to do so," said Mr Robinson.
"But it shows a very unpleasant situation in terms of the reach of the authority of that leadership in that the report shows there are elements of the organisation that are involved in all sorts of illegal activity and that just can't be allowed to continue."
The DUP said it was "disturbed but not surprised" that an IRA Army Council still existed and said the retention of any paramilitary structure, loyalist or republican, was "unacceptable".
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers outlined the paramilitary report's findings to Parliament earlier.
It found that all the main paramilitary groups had committed murders since the ceasefires of the 1990s but stressed that they were not engaged in or planning terrorist activities.
In regard to the IRA, the three-member independent panel which assessed police and security service intelligence, found that "the structures of PIRA remain in existence in a much reduced form".
These structures include "a senior leadership, the 'Provisional Army Council' and some 'departments'," the report said.
The panel did not think the IRA is actively recruiting or rearming.
The report stated that IRA members believe the Army Council "oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy". However, it said this strategy has a "wholly political focus". The report found that members of the IRA were engaged in criminality for personal gain, such as smuggling.
"The PIRA of the Troubles era is well beyond recall," the report added.
"It is our firm assessment that PIRA's leadership remains committed to the peace process and its aim of achieving a united Ireland by political means.
"The group is not involved in targeting or conducting terrorist attacks against the state."
Mr McGuinness said the IRA leadership had successfully delivered a transition from conflict to peace.
"There are of course enormous and urgent issues to be dealt with around the existence of armed groups, paramilitaries and criminality," the Sinn Fein veteran added.
"We all have a responsibility to deal with these issues to tackle criminality and bring paramilitarism to an end and Sinn Fein will play a full part in this important work."
The primary focus of the report was on the mainstream paramilitary groups that announced an end to violence in the 1990s, not the renegade dissident groups that have emerged since. Nevertheless the panel did stress the severe threat continued to be posed by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process.
The main loyalist paramilitary groups - the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commando - last week denounced all violence and set up a new body to address problems in loyalist areas.
The three members of the panel asked to conduct the exercise were former independent reviewer of UK terror laws Lord Carlile of Berriew; Rosalie Flanagan, a former permanent secretary at Stormont's Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure; and Northern Ireland-based QC Stephen Shaw.
Mr McGuigan was shot dead in Belfast in August in a suspected revenge attack for the murder of former IRA commander Gerard "Jock" Davison, 47, three months earlier.
Detectives believe some of Mr Davison's associates suspected Mr McGuigan of involvement in his shooting.
Before the McGuigan murder, the future viability of the administration had already been in doubt as a consequence of long-standing budgetary disputes, with the row over the non-implementation of the UK Government's welfare reforms the most vexed.