Rural communities 'must not be neglected in tackling paramilitarism'
A Stormont action plan to tackle the vestiges of paramilitarism must not neglect rural communities by over-focusing on urban trouble hotspots, an Assembly chair has warned.
Justice Committee chair Paul Frew expressed concern after a senior Department of Justice official said the £50 million strategy would hone in on places deemed to be heavily influenced by gunmen.
Mr Frew told Anthony Harbinson that no area of Northern Ireland had gone untouched by paramilitaries, highlighting crimes such as smuggling and racketeering.
"That cocktail of disaster has gone right across Northern Ireland," he said.
"How can you assure us, how can you assure any MLA who represents rural communities outside of Belfast or Londonderry or places where you would have a high level of paramilitary activity in comparison and contrast to the population, how can you alleviate the concern that they would have, and we would have, that this money is going to be allocated fairly to affect all of Northern Ireland, and not just some of hotspots, if there is such a thing."
Mr Harbinson, who was briefing committee members on the implementation of the strategy announced in the summer, insisted problems in rural communities would be tackled.
He said while there was a targeted geographical focus to the plan it also took a thematic approach to issues impacting across the region.
"By no means are we saying the bulk or any proportion of the money at the moment is specifically set aside for particular areas," he said.
The DoJ official added: "All of those issues will be taken care of, looked at, but there are certain geographic areas where perhaps the prevalence of paramilitaries, whether that be somewhere like Carrickfergus, where we know there is a very strong element of paramilitary activity, those are some of the areas geographically that we would be looking to deal with and take forward."
Police are beefing-up resources dedicated to tackling paramilitary-linked criminality as part of the plan to eradicate the terror groups.
The strategy also includes a pledge from the UK and Irish governments to "consult to consider" new short-term weapon decommissioning mechanisms, if the requirement arises in the future.
The 22 page document was the Stormont Executive's response to an independent panel report that recommended actions required to put an end to terrorist organisations.
The panel was set up as part of the landmark Fresh Start political agreement struck between the Democratic Unionists, Sinn Fein and the UK and Irish governments last year. The accord resolved a political crisis sparked by a murder linked to the Provisional IRA.
The panel, which made 43 recommendations, said paramilitary activity had greatly reduced over the course of the peace process, with the main groups remaining on ceasefire, but some members and former members continued to engage in violence, intimidation and other crime.
The £50 million funding the strategy is jointly sourced from Stormont and the UK government.