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Paramilitary Activity: Action Plan

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 17th October 2016.

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Photo of Philip Smith Philip Smith UUP 2:00 pm, 17th October 2016

2. Mr Smith asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister how they are monitoring the effectiveness of the Executive's action plan for tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime. (AQO 462/16-21)

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

The Executive published an action plan on tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime in July 2016. When we published the action plan, we made clear our commitment to work with local communities and build on the good work that we know goes on already. We have established a cross-departmental programme board that meets regularly and is developing a work programme for 2016-17. Work is also under way to develop detailed costed programmes to be put in place from 2017-18 onwards. We regularly meet the Justice Minister to review progress. We also discuss progress at our Fresh Start meetings with both the British and Irish Governments.

Photo of Philip Smith Philip Smith UUP

I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. Following recent media revelations and allegations about organisations in receipt of major Executive funding, what actions are you putting in place to ensure that funding is not given to those involved in criminality and paramilitarism?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I think that we have very robust processes in place. It is obvious that the Member is talking about the recent publicity surrounding the Charter group in east Belfast. It is obvious from the steering committee on that group that it is made up of politicians from the Assembly, people from statutory agencies and people from the business community. We have a robust mechanism in place to ensure that all funding for the SIF programme is properly accounted for. We have no concerns about that at all.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the deputy First Minister for his answers. He referred to media investigations around SIF and concerns about a recipient organisation. He will also be aware of the three-person panel report on paramilitarism and the need not to bolster and empower paramilitary organisations. Can he outline whether he thinks the UDA is a current or former paramilitary organisation?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Our responsibility is to deal with the steering groups that were established under the terms of the SIF programme, as they are the people who decide how a project or projects are taken forward in any area.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the UDA is in existence. The question is what role people who were formerly members of the UDA play in our society. There are people who are still in the UDA who play a very negative role; there are people who were formerly in the UDA and play a very negative role; and there are people who were formerly in the UDA who play a very positive role. I would like to think that, in our dealings with people, we are working with people in society who play a positive role.

On the republican side, there are many ex-prisoners who have been convicted of many things and all of them make a powerful and positive contribution to developing communities and their capacity. Just as important, they work on a cross-community basis with many individuals who, previously, would have been considered as enemies.

We are a society in transition. I know that it is the job of the Opposition, if they get the opportunity, to score cheap political points, but the main message here today is that there is a steering group in east Belfast made up of politicians from the House, statutory agencies, the business community and others who would be deemed to be of the loyalist persuasion. The important thing for us is that every penny is spent properly, and, thus far, there has been no suggestion from anybody that anything other than that has been the case.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I thank the deputy First Minister for the answers he has given the House up to this point. Will he provide an update to the House on the establishment of the Independent Reporting Commission on paramilitary activity? Does he agree that it is an outrageous slur on many of the good people who are involved in SIF projects to accuse them of being involved in paramilitarism? In my constituency, I have seen the positive benefit that the projects will have, as has the lady from South Belfast. She knows the positive benefit that they will have, and it is wrong to slur those people in that way.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

In relation to the Independent Reporting Commission, one of the commitments in 'A Fresh Start' was that a four-member international body would be established by the British and Irish Governments. That body will be responsible for reporting annually on progress towards ending continuing paramilitary activity and reporting on the implementation of the measures of the three Administrations. It will also consult government and relevant agencies and groups. The British and Irish Governments signed the treaty required to provide for the body on Tuesday 13 September, and we understand that supporting regulations have been laid before the British Parliament and that the Irish Government will bring forward proposals for implementing legislation before the end of the year. The aim is to have the commission in place by the end of this year. The Executive will nominate two members to the body in due course.

In relation to the work of the SIF programme, I think that the schemes being developed across the North are of immense value to local communities. It is not a top-down process. People at grass-roots level are deciding what they think is best to meet the needs of their communities. At the beginning of the process, when SIF was mooted and launched, there were suggestions from people in at least one of the opposition parties that this would be a slush fund for paramilitaries: it is clearly nothing of the sort. People have seized on the situation and on one person in east Belfast, but that does a grave disservice to the good and decent people throughout the country who work day and daily to ensure that the lives of the people in the community they come from are enriched by delivering valuable programmes.

Let us get away from the nonsense that this is directed at paramilitaries; this is directed at communities, and the communities are making the decisions. Of course, there is a wide range of representation on the steering groups to ensure that whatever safeguards are required are there, as well as the auditing processes that we, as a Government, conduct on all the programmes.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

The Minister said that the east Belfast SIF advisory panel included members of the statutory services and representatives of the business community. The Executive Office website lists eight people, none of whom represent the business community or are members of the statutory services. Would the Minister like to revisit his claim?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I would be prepared to send the Member the names.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 17th October 2016

I thank the deputy First Minister for his answers and for detailing the work of the Executive's action plan. Following on from his answers, may I ask how he and the First Minister will ensure that the work of the Executive's action plan on these activities complements and brings added value to the work already ongoing at community level?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

As we all know, dealing with paramilitary activity, criminal activity of any description or organised crime requires a collaborative approach, and the report of the three-person panel specified that. It has to be an approach that engages all the key public stakeholders, and they must all work in partnership with communities. Community input is vital to the full implementation of the recommendations. More importantly, it means delivery agencies listening to communities and understanding the impact of criminality on community life. Innovation, co-design and community partnership working must define the implementation of the 43 recommendations.

There has been a lot of criticism in the past that there was no plan to deal with this unacceptable situation, which, unfortunately, still exists in our society. This is a plan; this is a very serious attempt by the Executive, supported by others, to ensure that we continue to bear down on it. Of course, a key role in that has to be played by the Police Service, which is enthusiastic about this, up to the task and absolutely believes that it can be effective only if it gets community support. Rather than trying to chip away at this, the Opposition would be better employed in weighing in behind it and giving it and the police the support that they deserve.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

In light of the First Minister's willingness to stand and be photographed beside self-admitted paramilitary figures, what credibility is now left in the Executive commitment to the disbandment of paramilitary groups?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I have no doubt whatsoever about the First Minister's commitment to the disbandment of paramilitary organisations — none whatsoever — and I do not think that she has any doubt whatsoever about my commitment to stand against them. Anybody who is involved in a paramilitary organisation or criminal gang is working against the interests of the people whom we in the Assembly represent. Yes, there are people out there who are still dedicated and committed to trying to bring these institutions down and plunge us back to the past. I saw how, rather pathetically, an attempt was made to portray what was happening in east Belfast as something other than putting in place a work programme that was about giving employment opportunities to people previously unemployed, giving them a real opportunity to go on to full-time employment. As far as I am concerned, that is a valuable programme. If people are contributing to that in a positive way, alongside other representatives from the community, that is to be welcomed. If we were to employ a rule of thumb that everybody who was involved in conflict in the past has no role to play in the future, I am afraid that there would be no future for any of us.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Mr Nelson McCausland is not in his place.