N. Ireland Politics

NI paramilitaries: Independent panel suggests new decommissioning scheme

Paramilitary mural Image copyright PACEMAKER
Image caption Police are being urged to shift their focus from paramilitary activity to criminality

A new decommissioning scheme should be set up to deal with fresh requests from paramilitary groups wanting to put their arms beyond use, an independent panel has said.

The suggestion is one of 43 proposals made by the panel set up as part of last year's Fresh Start Agreement.

Its role was to devise strategies to help the disbandment of paramilitaries.

First Minister Arlene Foster said an action plan based on the panel's proposals will be drawn up this month.

"[The report] deals with all of the paramilitary organisations and criminal gangs," Mrs Foster said.

"If we implement what has been presented to us, then there will be no hiding place for those people and they will be dealt with through the appropriate means."

Employment

The report is entitled The Fresh Start panel report on the disbandment of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland.

It suggests creating a unit to specialise in paramilitaries and communities in transition and allowing the Director of Public Prosecutions to appeal "unduly lenient" terrorism sentences.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, First Minister Arlene Foster and Justice Minister Claire Sugden discussed the report at Stormont on Tuesday

The panel was made up of the former Alliance Party leader Lord Alderdice, Monica McWilliams, a former MLA and chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and solicitor John McBurney.

They also proposed that the Northern Ireland Executive should help former paramilitary prisoners in relation to employment and access to financial services, adoption and travel advice.

It said the executive should contact authorities in the United States to speed up the processing of visa applications by former prisoners.

Toothless

The report's authors said the label of paramilitary groups were often used as a "badge of convenience" for activities that tend to be purely criminal and not linked to political objectives.

Mr McBurney said those groups cannot have "control and coercive power within communities", and added police should shift their focus from paramilitary activity to criminality.

"We hope that legislation will be put in place to treat organised crime groups as that, and not to attach to them this badge, which seems to elevate their status beyond what they actually are," he added.

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said the report was "largely toothless".

"Though it gives but passing mention to the victims of paramilitaries, it has plenty to say about how life could be made easier for the victim-makers," he said.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said he agreed with some of proposals, adding that it was "time to talk not of paramilitaries but criminals".

But he also said: "Our concern is that there is a danger the paramilitaries could back the proposals being offered to them, but not deliver what is demanded in return."

Colum Eastwood, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, said there needed to be a "fresh gear change in the war on organised crime".

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