Statement by Paul Murphy on the Publication of the First Report of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), (20 April 2004)
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Statement by Paul Murphy, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on the Publication of the First Report of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), (20 April 2004)
"Mr Speaker, with permission I should like to make a statement about a Report I have received from the Independent Monitoring Commission concerning paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.
Before I move to the substance of my statement, I should like to take this opportunity to condemn in the strongest terms yesterday's sending of suspect packages to two elected representatives in Northern Ireland, the Hon Member for Belfast East and Mr Alex Attwood. I am sure the whole House will join me in that. Police investigations into these incidents are continuing.
As the House will recall, the Independent Monitoring Commission was set up by an International Agreement, supported by legislation we passed in this place last year. It is composed of four distinguished members: John Grieve, former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Lord Alderdice, formerly Presiding Officer of the Northern Ireland Assembly, both nominated by the British Government; Mr Joseph Brosnan, formerly the Secretary of the Irish Department of Justice, nominated by the Irish Government; and Mr Dick Kerr, formerly the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence in the United States, nominated by the US Administration.
Last Wednesday the British and Irish Governments received the Commission's first report. I am today laying it before the House as I am required to do by law. Copies of the report will be available in the Vote Office at the conclusion of my statement.
The Report is concerned with the continuing activities of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. The Commission had originally expected to produce the Report in the early summer; but at the request of the Governments, it has brought its production forward. At the request of the Governments, the report also specifically addresses the incident that took place at Kelly's Cellars, Belfast, on 20 February 2004, in the context of its wider analysis. That event, as the House will recall, caused profound controversy in Northern Ireland. This has in turn disrupted the conduct of the Review of the operation of the Good Friday Agreement that began earlier this year.
We are most grateful to the Commission for advancing its Report. This has clearly involved a great deal of work by all concerned. Notwithstanding the pressures of time, I believe they have produced a very thorough and far-reaching Report.
Both Governments accept the Commission's conclusions and recommendations.
The Commission states that the situation it is now addressing is much better than it was in past years. However, the Commission finds that paramilitary activity is at a disturbingly high level on the part of both republican and loyalist groups. I quote from the Commission's report:
"On the basis of reported figures - which, especially for assaults, may not reflect the full picture - the scale of paramilitary violence since 1 January 2003 has been worryingly high: approaching one murder a month; some three victims a week both from shootings and from assaults."
The Commission goes on to state that two parties represented in the Assembly, Sinn Féin and the Progressive Unionist Party, have links with paramilitary groups. It is clear from the report that senior politicians are in a position to exercise significant influence over their activities.
The Commission also expresses its belief that the incident in Belfast on 20 February was the responsibility of the Provisional IRA.
The Commission urges elected politicians in Northern Ireland to commit themselves to supporting the rule of law and the criminal justice institutions.
The Commission says that, in the absence of a sitting Northern Ireland Assembly, it is not possible for it to make recommendations on measures which the Assembly itself might consider taking in response to its report. However, the Commission makes clear that "had the Assembly now been functioning, we would have recommended in respect of Sinn Féin and the Progressive Unionist Party measures up to and possibly including exclusion from office".
But, in the absence of a sitting Assembly, the Commission recommends - and I quote - that I "should consider taking action in respect of the salary of Assembly members and/or the funding of Assembly parties, so as to impose an appropriate financial measure in respect of Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party".
When we debated the legislation relating to the Commission last year in this House, I made it clear that the Government believed it very important that the Commission's recommendations should be given effect. And I indicated that, in circumstances where the Commission had made recommendations but action had not been taken, I would be able to use the powers of last resort granted to me by the Act to take action myself in line with such recommendations.
In the light of this, and having considered the Report, I am persuaded that it would be right to remove for a period the entitlement to the block financial assistance paid to Assembly parties in respect of both Sinn Féin and the Progressive Unionist Party; and I propose to do so next Wednesday, 28 April.
I have therefore today made an Order under the urgency procedure, amending the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as amended by the legislation we passed last year, to allow me to take this step in the absence of a sitting Assembly. It will also permit me to act to reduce members' salaries should I see fit to do so in the light of a future IMC report.
I will, however, in line with the legal requirement on me to act fairly, take account of any representations I receive by next Tuesday from the two parties concerned, before reaching a final decision.
The Commission's other recommendations, all of which the British Government endorses, include that paramilitary groups must cease all forms of criminal activity; and that all politicians and others in prominent roles must exert every possible influence to bring about a cessation of paramilitary activity.
I hope that this report, and the firm but carefully measured action that the Government is taking in response to it, will underline that it is essential that all paramilitary activity, from whatever quarter, should cease fully and completely.
The Commission's next report on paramilitary activity will be able to test whether that has happened, and if not, whether further action is needed.
In the meantime, the Government remains firmly committed to the idea that political progress can only be achieved through dialogue. I shall continue to meet all the parties in Northern Ireland to explore how we can achieve the basis for a restoration of the devolved institutions. Already, in the context of the Review, a number of interesting proposals have been made. There is still much to discuss.
But this Report underlines starkly what steps need to be taken if we are to genuinely move forward to stable and inclusive devolved government. I must reiterate what the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and others have said on many occasions: all paramilitary activity must come to an end if there is to be a stable future for devolved government in Northern Ireland. That is what the Prime Minister spelt out when he talked of acts of completion. It is what both Governments made clear in paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration. And the Commission itself recognises in its report that violence and the threat of violence can have no part in democratic politics.
Mr Speaker, the Independent Monitoring Commission has, I believe, a vital role to play in securing that development and underpinning it once devolved Government is re-established. It has, through this Report, demonstrated its impartiality, its competence, and its willingness to speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. I believe the whole House will be grateful to it."
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