My Lords, this statutory instrument makes provision for the exercise of functions of the new Independent Reporting Commission. The commission is being established under the fresh start agreement to report on progress towards ending paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland.
Your Lordships will recall that the fresh start agreement included a range of measures agreed by political parties in Northern Ireland last November on ending paramilitarism and tackling organised crime. The Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Act provides the legislative foundations for the commission. This House debated clauses relating to the commission in April and the Bill received Royal Assent on
The UK Government and the Government of Ireland signed an international treaty on
A treaty is, of course, more than words on a piece of paper and more than a legal obligation. It is also a solemn and genuine commitment between states diligently to work together in pursuit of a common goal. The common goal in establishing the IRC is to rid Northern Ireland society of the harm caused by paramilitary activity. Let me be clear: there never was any justification for paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. There is none today and there must not be any in the future.
The treaty was laid in this House on
Before I turn to the specific provisions of the instrument, I remind the House of the IRC’s functions. These are: to report annually on progress towards ending paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland; to report on other such further occasions if jointly requested by the UK Government and the Government of Ireland; and to report on the implementation of the relevant measures of the UK and Irish Governments, and the Northern Ireland Executive, including on the Executive’s strategy to tackle paramilitary activity.
I turn now to the regulations themselves. Regulation 2(1) requires the IRC to exercise its functions with a view to supporting long-term peace and stability in society, and stable and inclusive devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Regulation 2(2) requires that, in exercising its functions, the IRC must not do anything which might have a prejudicial effect on the prosecution of crime. Your Lordships may recall that Section 2 of the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Act 2016 already requires the IRC not to act in any way that might have a prejudicial effect on the prevention, investigation or detection of crime. Regulation 2(2) is necessary because Article 9(3)(c) of the treaty requires the commission not to act in a way that might have a prejudicial effect on any proceedings which have, or are likely to be, commenced in a court of law; and Article 9(3)(d) requires it not to act in a way which might have a prejudicial effect on the prevention, investigation, detection or prosecution of crime.
These requirements are already reflected in Section 2(3)(c) and (d) of the 2016 Act, with the exception that Section 2(3)(c) does not expressly require the commission to avoid acting in a way which might prejudice the prosecution of crime. The prosecution of crime could include criminal proceedings which are at too early a stage for it to be said with certainty whether proceedings are likely to be commenced. It may also cover matters related to prosecution which are not focused specifically on criminal proceedings—for example, the gathering of evidence. The purpose of Regulation 2(2) is therefore to ensure that this aspect of the treaty is given full effect in the UK.
Regulation 3(1) requires the Secretary of State to lay reports of the commission before Parliament and to arrange for them to be published. Regulation 3(2) requires the Secretary of State to lay the commission’s accounts and auditor’s reports before Parliament, and to arrange for the accounts and reports to be published.
The impact of paramilitary-style attacks and activity in Northern Ireland is all too evident. There have already been four paramilitary murders this year. This is abhorrent. We must ensure that the paramilitary label is no longer seen as a badge of honour and that paramilitary-style control, coercion and extortion of communities is stopped.
Since my appointment in July as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, I have made visits and met groups across Northern Ireland, and I have seen at first hand the progress and economic development being achieved. Paramilitaries are the enemies of progress and economic development in Northern Ireland. They hold back communities, deterring investment and jobs and preventing people moving forward with their lives. Tackling effectively paramilitary activity must therefore include measures to help communities challenge the control that these groups exert upon them. The reports of the new commission will play a key part in informing how we do that and ensuring that the Northern Ireland Executive are doing all they can to drive out paramilitary activity from local communities. The UK Government are committed to playing their part. We have committed £25 million over five years to support the Northern Ireland Executive’s action plan to end paramilitarism. We have committed a further £3 million to fund the work of the IRC.
It is essential, however, that the Executive’s plan is focused on delivery in areas where it is most needed and that it has both real and measurable outcomes. The Government are working with the Executive to ensure that the funding secured under fresh start is used to greatest effect.
The ultimate test of success in all our endeavours will be whether communities dealing with the malign influence of paramilitary activity experience a real, tangible and positive improvement to their lives. This will be the most important feature flowing from the Independent Reporting Commission’s work. It is right that we should all set high expectations of what we seek to achieve, because those affected by paramilitary activity deserve no less. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his full explanation of the regulations before us. I thank him and his staff for keeping me fully informed on this legislation from day one. That assistance is greatly appreciated.
The Minister mentioned the paramilitaries and referred to work to remove the breeding ground for unjustified paramilitarism. That is very important. Collectively, we have made huge strides in Northern Ireland and that needs to continue. My honourable friend Vernon Coaker, former shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is long on record as having called for a commission along the lines illustrated by the Minister. I again place on record our full support for the Government’s efforts in this field. The way in which the Government have sought to involve the Opposition and all Members in this matter indicates the bipartisan nature of attitudes towards issues in Northern Ireland.
A number of questions were asked in Committee in the Commons—I am not taking credit for them; I am just picking them up from Hansard. The questions may have been answered elsewhere by letter, but it would be useful if the Minister could either answer them now or, as did his counterpart in the other place, undertake to write. My honourable friend Stephen Pound asked whether the commission’s reports would be laid before the House and whether it would be an annual process or a one-off. He asked also what attitude the Government had to the cross-community aspect of the commission, whether there would be a deliberate effort to make it cross-community or whether any other methods were being considered. As we all know, all communities in Northern Ireland need to feel that they have a stake in whatever happens.
The Minister in the Commons indicated that he would respond in writing on a number of matters. He indicated that he was not sure whether the reports would be placed in the Library or laid before the House. He continued:
“As for sensitivities around the appointments”— which we all understand—
“there is a detailed process for making them, and I am happy to explain that in writing”.
In the interest of clarity, will the Minister undertake to write to all noble Lords present tonight with responses to the questions asked in the Commons? Stephen Pound MP asked about the appointment of the chair of the commission. Are any proposals on record yet as to how that would be tackled? I want to make it clear that, like anyone else, I appreciate the sensitivities around these issues in Northern Ireland. I do not ask these questions to embarrass anyone or to cause difficulties for the Government, but clarity is needed and we need to know exactly how the appointments work. The Minister in the Commons, Mr Kris Hopkins, said:
“Again, I will write to the hon. Gentleman about appointments to the commission and how appointees are selected, and will give him that information in full”.—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 2/11/16; col. 6.]
If these questions have been answered in writing by the Minister in the Commons, will the Minister repeat those letters?
As this is my first intervention from these Benches on Northern Irish issues—I think there are a few fellow Scots around this evening—I shall keep my remarks brief, but I start by paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Alderdice both in his role as a member on the fresh start panel and in his role as spokesman from these Benches for the past six years. His level of expertise and deep understanding of the issues make him an extremely daunting act to follow.
The Independent Reporting Commission is an important part of the fresh start agreement and its role in reporting annually on progress will be vital in shining a light on continued paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. It will also play a crucial role in reporting the progress that the Northern Ireland Executive, the UK Government and the Irish Government make in implementing measures to reduce paramilitary activity.
In a democratic society there is no place for paramilitary groups and the violence and criminal acts that they perpetrate. A huge amount of time, energy and commitment has gone into sustaining the peace process in Northern Ireland, and that support needs to continue and be enhanced as we move to the next phase, not least because of the extra pressures that the Brexit negotiations will bring. A permanently peaceful society with politically stable institutions and a strong economy in Northern Ireland are intricately linked. Strengthening the economy, tackling social exclusion, overcoming inequalities, delivering efficiency in public services and tackling violence are all essential elements in challenging the division that exists in Northern Ireland.
The report of the fresh start panel discussed a number of these issues. It recognised that there are many barriers to tackling continued paramilitary activity, including lack of confidence in the rule of law, gender issues, difficulties in securing employment following a conviction, social deprivation and the slow pace of cultural change. I welcome the Northern Ireland Executive’s response to the report, although it is perhaps disappointing that there was no indication of timescales for its implementation. Indeed, it was reported in October that the Government have not yet released money to tackle paramilitary activity because the Northern Ireland Executive need to agree a more detailed plan. Could the Minister update the House on his department’s discussions with the Executive in this regard? Is progress being made in securing a more detailed strategy?
I welcome the Written Statement from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland of
At this time it would be remiss not to take account of the importance of cross-border police co-operation in tackling criminal activity on both sides of the border. In this regard I welcome the developments we have seen since the fresh start agreement was signed, including the establishment of the Joint Agency Task Force and the updated cross-border policing strategy launched in September. Can the Minister assure the House that this co-operation will not be compromised during the Government’s negotiations to leave the European Union? We on these Benches support the regulations before us this evening. I look forward to participating in many more debates on Northern Ireland in the coming months.
My Lords, in welcoming the establishment of this body, I further emphasise that I am disappointed that it will have no sanctioning powers. In other words, it can deliberate and report but, unlike its predecessor, it cannot impose any sanctions on persons it deems to have participated in paramilitary activity.
It is 22 years since the ceasefires and 18 years since the Belfast agreement. One would have thought that, with the passage of that length of time, one could have foreseen a gradual diminution in paramilitary activity. However, while the terrorism is not on the scale it once was, it has reached a sort of plateau. As the Minister said in his opening remarks, there have been four deaths already this year. But that is not the only expression of paramilitary activity. If we take figures from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, in the past 10 years 6,261 people have claimed they were intimidated out of their homes by paramilitaries and the housing executive accepted 3,720 of those claims. In the year up to April, 588 such claims were made and 414 were accepted. By any standards, paramilitaries continue on their path. We also had the tragic death of a teenager—last week, I believe—who was driven to his death by paramilitaries for non-payment of a fine they had imposed upon him. The idea that we are moving at pace towards the end of paramilitary activity is very misleading.
We welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, to the Front Bench. If she does not have a full working knowledge of Northern Ireland affairs at the moment, she does not know what wonder awaits her as we move forward. However, she made reference to the Government’s promise—as the Minister reiterated—of £25 million over five years to help with the strategy to tackle paramilitary activity. Unfortunately, the Executive in Stormont have not yet been able to finalise these proposals. Consequently, and understandably, the Government have had no alternative but to withhold the funds because there is no strategy there, as there should be. Yet there is a continuing flow of funds from government to organisations populated by persons who have had paramilitary connections. That particular flow of funds is able to continue whereas the strategy to deal with this is paralysed by inaction. That is a very negative development.
We know this is deep-seated and there are a lot of social and economic reasons for it, as the noble Baroness referred to. We know that young people in areas with significant deprivation and a lack of education and job opportunities are easy prey to the elements around. It is still in some areas a badge of honour to be associated with some of these organisations. However, remember that it is only just over a year since the activities of some of these organisations almost brought down the Executive. That precipitated urgent talks but just over a year ago it almost brought down Stormont. The idea that this is resolved is misleading.
We seem to be still in the foothills. If after 18 years we cannot even agree a strategy for dealing with paramilitaries, what are we doing? What is the delay? Why is this not happening when there is a funding stream clearly available and promised? I would have thought anybody would have taken the opportunity to get on with that and it is regrettable that it has not happened. The longer we leave it, the more of these young people will be sucked into these organisations. They have their lives ruined and miss opportunities. With that level of funding available, it is outrageous that we are not able to get out there and spend it to avoid young people in particular getting sucked into this.
Of course, hardcore paramilitaries continue to try to kill members of the Prison Service and of the police—the PSNI—in particular. That is continuing. Thank God they have been intercepted in many cases. I must pay tribute not only to the PSNI but also to the Garda for the work and co-operation that exists there. They have prosecuted a number of cases successfully. But there is still a large number of people involved, bearing in mind that they are a generation past the agreement and when there was open paramilitary fighting with the Army. Still these organisations exist. Still weapons are being found. Still weapons are being acquired. It is very disappointing that it has not been possible to get behind a strategy to deal with this and spend the money already allocated. I do not understand why we have this continual paralysis.
I regret that there are no powers of sanction for this body. Nevertheless, perhaps it can shine a light on what is going on in its reports. If I remember correctly—noble Lords will correct me if I am wrong—it can produce a special report if requested. However, with the figures released on people who are still being intimidated out of their homes, it is time that this paralysis was ended. I hope the Minister will use all his influence with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that he is in a position to make those funds available, release them and get something happening on the ground that will keep young people away from these organisations.
My Lords, I support the implementation of this statutory instrument, and I note with pleasure the bipartisan support it received from the Opposition Benches. I absolutely accept the problem that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, noted, that the Independent Reporting Commission will not have the power to deliver its own sanctions. None the less, it sends out a powerful signal that government, and even the Northern Ireland Executive, are not prepared any longer to sweep paramilitary crime under the carpet. That is of value in its own respect. For the rest, we must hope that the decision to devolve policing and justice will pay dividends in the next couple of years or so.
I will make a point about the £3 million that has been made available. This is not a criticism of what has been done; we have no choice but to go down this road. This body is part of the means by which Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland politicians extracted themselves from a near-fatal crisis of the Executive. A promise has been made, and it is quite right that Her Majesty’s Government try to deliver on their side of the promise. However, it is an unusual thing, is it not, that Her Majesty’s Government are paying for all of it but have only one nominee, whereas the Assembly has two and the Irish Government have one, although the £3 million that is keeping the thing going is from Her Majesty’s Government. In this case, it is right; it is an inevitable if difficult decision, although a defensible one. However, in the future we need to be careful about arrangements in which Her Majesty’s Government pay the piper but do not call the tune, particularly with respect to arrangements that might be made about legacy issues in the future. It is slightly worrying from the point of view of the future, although it is the right thing to do at this time.
I will make another point about a positive part of the statutory instrument, which is the decision to have more transparency about the way the Executive display their finances and in particular the role played by the United Kingdom Exchequer. This is a positive development. One of the things those of us who live in Northern Ireland understand, in a way that perhaps those who do not live there do not, is that the discussion of the local finances goes on in an extremely airy-fairy world, without respect to the importance of the subvention from the UK Exchequer, which is vital to the survival of the Northern Irish economy. I totally support that—that is what the United Kingdom means, and the fact that Northern Ireland has been in distress and in difficult circumstances and has been helped by the United Kingdom is a tribute to the concept of the union and the United Kingdom. I totally support it, but the people of Northern Ireland have a responsibility to be realistic about these matters and to take their own role in this seriously. The decision that now the Executive must make clear what the financial relationships are is a positive one. The hero of the Troubles has always been the unknown British taxpayer, and it is right that he be respected at this moment. It is now 18 years since the Good Friday agreement, and the time has come and it is right for us to have this transparency about public funding.
My Lords, it is impossible to forget the widespread feelings of shock and outrage which were evoked by events in Northern Ireland in the summer of last year. They demonstrated, in the most stark and vivid manner, the continuing malign presence of paramilitary organisations 17 years after the signing of the Belfast agreement. The sheer extent of paramilitary malignity was most vividly illustrated for us by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, in his powerful and moving remarks a little while ago.
Some of us felt last year, and still feel, that it was unfortunate, to put it mildly, that the Independent Monitoring Commission, which could have continued to play a most useful role, had been wound up in 2011. It is so much easier to adapt an existing institution to deal with fresh challenges and difficulties than to establish an entirely new one, particularly when two sovereign Governments then have to reach a fresh agreement between them. But of course no sense of regret for what is past should inhibit full-hearted support for the new Independent Reporting Commission. It will have a most important contribution to make in strengthening the still fragile peace of Northern Ireland, which matters above all else.
Some important questions have been raised by noble Lords this evening, and I would like to raise three more. First, the fresh start agreement, signed a year ago this month, states that it,
“places fresh obligations on Northern Ireland’s elected representatives to work together on their shared objective of ridding society of all forms of paramilitary activity and groups”.
One year on, how much progress has been made in advancing these fresh obligations?
Secondly, will the Independent Reporting Commission have all the legal advice that it will need to ensure that its work does not,
“have a prejudicial effect on any proceedings which have, or are likely to be, commenced in a court of law”,
in the words of the agreement signed in September between the two Governments?
Thirdly, when will the remaining regulations subject to the negative procedure be laid? The appropriate period will need to elapse before they become law, which presumably means that they may not have been passed when the commission is established early next year, as my noble friend Lord Dunlop indicated in his remarks at the outset of this debate, although the Explanatory Memorandum issued with the regulations gives next month—December—as the date of establishment.
I hope that the first report of the commission will be forthcoming as soon as possible. We need to be clear that a successful working partnership has been forged between its four members. We need to be clear about the specific aims and objectives that the commission has set for itself in the first phase of its existence. Such matters need to be kept before this Parliament. Under the old Stormont regime, devolution in Northern Ireland meant indifference to the Province’s affairs here at Westminster; that must never ever happen again.
My Lords, first, I apologise to the Minister for not being here at the start of this debate. I see this very much as a further development of the political process in Northern Ireland. This can only help. I know that the Executive are dealing with some very difficult issues at the moment. I would hope that these provisions will help them to deal with those issues a lot sooner.
We should put on record the previous Secretaries of State who have worked tirelessly to get where we are in Northern Ireland today. We need to recognise that we have had almost nine years of fairly stable government; okay, there have been a few bumps along the way—some of them fairly serious—but they have managed to stay together. I think that we have a stable Government and a stable Assembly in Northern Ireland now. That is a huge achievement compared to where we came from 20, 25 or 30 years ago. We have all moved on in Northern Ireland. You have only to look at the pledge of office used by Ministers in the Assembly, and by Assembly Members, which is set out in Schedule 4 to the Northern Ireland Act. All this is moving Northern Ireland forward.
This all comes out of what was agreed by the political parties on
I believe that we have paramilitaries who genuinely want to come into the democratic process. We should try to help to bring them in. The police and the justice system in Northern Ireland should deal with those who do not want to come into the process. When you talk to paramilitaries, there is a desire to leave it behind and come in. It is about how we get them in and deal with them, and then how they eventually leave the stage, but they must be part of the solution in Northern Ireland. We cannot isolate them totally and absolutely. Yes, as noble Lords have said, it is 20 years but that is 20 years too long. We need to find a way of dealing with this issue. They are a total curse in Northern Ireland. I believe that on some occasions they hold back our politicians who want to move forward even quicker. The legacy issue in Northern Ireland is a major issue. We must try to resolve that issue. I am hearing reasonably good soundings that they are moving forward on it. If it can be resolved, that will be better for the future of Northern Ireland and for all its people, so let us move forward. This is good news here tonight.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his statement and I, too, apologise for missing the opening. I very much welcome the regulations relating to the setting-up of the Independent Reporting Commission. Does the Minister agree that good progress has been made in Northern Ireland since the signing of the fresh start agreement? A long list of issues has been agreed and all are being progressed and implemented. The situation in Northern Ireland today is much more positive and, as we have heard, there has been a long period of stable government.
However, the threat posed by paramilitaries from both the republican and the loyalist sides, unfortunately, still exists. Only last night, we witnessed the murder of Mr Jim Hughes at Divis flats. This has to be condemned by all right-minded persons. All parties must work together to rid society of all paramilitary activity.
I look forward to the Independent Reporting Commission beginning its work and to receiving its first report, which I trust will prove to be an important arm in helping to bring an end to all forms of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland, which for far too long has been a scourge to law-abiding communities in Northern Ireland. I very much hope that the next step in securing long-lasting peace is for all parties to agree a way forward to finding a solution for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this short debate and for their support for these regulations. In particular, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, to her new role and echo her warm words for the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who was part of the independent panel that made 43 recommendations on how we take dealing with paramilitary activity forward.
As I said earlier, this is another important step in the process of meeting the commitments entered into as part of the fresh start agreement. A number of points were raised during the debate, and I will try to address as many of them as I can now. If there are any points that I am unable to cover, I will, of course write to the noble Lords concerned.
First, on reporting, Regulation 3(1)(a) requires the Secretary of State to lay the reports of the commission before the House. If the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, would like further detail on the process, I am, of course, happy to write to him.
On the cross-community nature of the commission, there will be four commissioners, one nominated by the UK Government, one nominated by the Irish Government and two appointed by the Executive who will be nominated jointly by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That is to ensure collaboration and to provide cross-community credibility.
With regard to the appointment of a chairman of the commission, this is not required by the legislation or necessarily envisaged, but the IRC has the autonomy to appoint a chairperson if it so chooses. We hope that the commission will be in place in early 2017. We are aiming for January 2017.
I can assure the noble Baroness that the Government will not allow the negotiations on exiting the EU in any way to compromise the Government’s determination to carry forward their commitments to Northern Ireland.
When we debated the primary legislation, my noble friend made the point about sanctions. It is open to the IRC to make recommendations to inform the Executive’s programme for government.
With regard to the Executive’s action plan, as has already been mentioned, the UK is providing £25 million to tackle paramilitary activity. The Government are working with the Executive to deliver a robust action plan. Before the UK Government can agree to release funds, we must see a prioritised and effective plan from the Executive, and we look forward to seeing more detailed plans from the Executive. It is essential that the Executive make urgent progress on this.
On the funding of the IRC, I note what the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said. It is important that the transparency of the Executive’s finances is underpinned by an independent fiscal council.
My noble friend Lord Lexden asked a number of questions. The IRC may contract such legal services as it considers necessary. That is obviously part of why the Government are providing £3 million funding for the commission.
We hope that the further regulations will be laid soon. I hope that I have covered most, if not all, of the points that have been raised.
In conclusion, the continuing activities of paramilitaries are a blight on communities across Northern Ireland. The Independent Reporting Commission will have an important role in helping to rid Northern Ireland society of these heinous activities. I am sure the whole House looks forward to the IRC starting its work early next year.
My Lords, just before the noble Lord sits down, I am bit unclear about one thing—if he is not in a position to answer now, perhaps he could write to me. The £5 million a year has been promised, but the Government clearly have some issues over the lack of clarity on the part of the Northern Ireland Executive’s strategy. Could he tell us whether there is any timetable for resolving that issue? Could he even share with us—if not now, perhaps by writing and putting the letter in the Library—what it is that is not sufficiently developed? We have been at this game for well over 20 years now, and it is very disturbing that there is money there while there are huge areas of deprivation and paramilitarism is still active. It would be most unfortunate if we cannot get that already-provided resource out there, making some positive contribution. If the Minister could help us in some way on that, I would be most grateful.
As my noble friend will know, the Secretary of State has to persuade the Treasury to release funds. The House will know that the Treasury requires sight of detailed and measurable plans, and that is what is at issue here. I cannot give him a precise timetable tonight, but if there is further information that can be usefully shared, I am happy to write to him on that. The key point is that the Government are seized of the need to make urgent progress on putting in place an effective, detailed action plan that will start to tackle this scourge on society in Northern Ireland.