Belfast Telegraph

Minister defends delays in 'difficult work' of tackling paramilitaries

Stormont's Justice Minister has hit back at critics who have described the Executive's approach to tackling paramilitary activity as lacklustre.

Claire Sugden told MLAs it was "difficult, laborious work" that could not be rushed and accused political opponents of trying to undermine public confidence.

She said: "We are not taking a simplistic approach.

"Premature attacks only serve to undermine public confidence in what we are doing and that serves no purpose."

Speaking during a debate in the Assembly, the minister also defended the "high-level" action plan drawn up during the summer.

She added: "T his is not a tick box exercise. It is not a shopping list of recommendations with a price tag against each one because this is not what we will be doing to communities. It is about enabling, facilitating and nurturing communities to do it for themselves.

"I t is about delivering long-term societal change and it takes time to build the relationships to make that happen.

"It will require new approaches, innovative ideas and some risk-taking. It will require a leap of faith from those who have seen it all before that this time it really is different."

Last month, a father-of-one was shot dead in west Belfast while dissident republicans have been responsible for a string of so-called "punishment attacks" as well as targeting members of the security forces.

The loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and units within the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) have also been active in drug-dealing and racketeering in recent years.

The Fresh Start Agreement between the British and Irish governments and local political leaders pledged to address paramilitarism and tackle organised crime.

The landmark political agreement, which marks its first anniversary next week, was struck between the Democratic Unionists, Sinn Fein and the UK and Irish governments to resolve a political crisis sparked by a murder linked to the Provisional IRA.

A total of £10 million was to be set aside this year to tackle continuing paramilitary activity.

Half was to come from the devolved Executive and half from Westminster but last month it emerged that funding had not been released by the UK government because Stormont had not provided a detailed strategy.

Ms Sugden said: "We did not rush to spend money and I make no apology for that.

"We will need to spend every penny of that money and we are committed to spending it on the right things at the right time.

"Spend will be based on need."

However, the minister revealed that £4 million had been invested in new forensic science equipment; £1 million had been allocated to help the police investigate organised crime and the Probation Board was running two pilot programmes aimed at reducing re-offending.

Work is also ongoing with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive on murals and bonfires, she added.

Alliance Party MLA Stewart Dickson, who tabled the motion calling for an end to all forms of paramilitary activity, claimed the Executive had failed to deal with the scourge.

He said: "We are highly sceptical on the Executive's action plan response - an action plan that was produced in June 2016 and is clearly very weak.

"The action plan is deficient in many, many ways. There is a clear lack of strategic analysis; the plan does not produce clear targets, time scales or resources for implementation.

"There is little evidence of fresh thinking or of a willingness to engage in that."

Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie said he too was "pessimistic".

The former Army captain also claimed Sinn Fein had not done enough to distance itself from violent dissident republicans.

Mr Beattie said: "There is an inability for Sinn Fein to distance themselves from the dissidents.

"They can use words like 'they are traitors to Ireland' but, I can understand how hard it is because some of the IRA members who they knew have bled into the dissidents so, they have a real issue."

However, Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly said dissident republicans hated his party representatives more than the British.

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