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Statement by Margaret Ritchie on the future of the Conflict Transformation Initiative, to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Stormont, (16 October 2007)

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Text: Margaret Ritchie... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Statement by Margaret Ritchie, then Northern Ireland Minister for Social Development, on the future of the Conflict Transformation Initiative to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Stormont, (16 October 2007)


"Mr Speaker, Members, as Minister for Social Development I have been reviewing the programme funded by my Department known as the Conflict Transformation Initiative.

As members can appreciate there has been considerable public interest in this initiative and in the position of my Department in relation to the continuing funding of the programme.

On taking office I made a pledge in this Assembly to the people we represent - that pledge requires me to promote the interests of the whole community and it is the guiding premise not only of my contract with the people who put me here, but it is the bench mark and standard of what is expected of me and all Ministers in this Executive.

As members will know this Initiative was established under the former Secretary of State Peter Hain during the tenure of my Direct Rule predecessor, David Hanson. From the outset there was considerable concern expressed across the entire spectrum of political opinion about the rationale behind this project, its proximity to an illegal terrorist organisation, as well as its monitoring, evaluation and fairness.

Indeed with the benefit of hindsight, it appeared to many, to have been very hastily introduced before devolution returned.

Before returning to the context of the programme, I would like to point out that any initiative which targets socially and economically deprived, hard to reach communities will have worthwhile aspects. The legacy of our violent past has left many of the most disadvantaged within the grip of paramilitary activity.

Therefore, I recognise the need for creativity and flexibility in the provision of such programmes. I am therefore putting on record my confidence in the Farset organisation as a managing agent for a programme funded by the Department for Social Development.

It is important at this stage for members to understand the distinction between the role of Farset Community Enterprises as a managing agent, and the return expected from those the initiative was specifically targeting through the actual programme. This distinction is important as there has been much misinformation circulating in relation to my view of the role of Farset. There has also been the deliberately misleading suggestion that CTI was simply about targeting social need, and not connected to a reduction in criminality, paramilitary activity, and violence by the UDA. Those who initiated this programme and those who were to benefit from this programme’s outreach knew full well from the start what was expected from them.

Notwithstanding the problems arising from the hurried nature of CTI announced by Direct Rule Ministers, it is a matter of record that, at the time, both Secretary of State Hain and Minister Hanson expected that this funding would lead to a ‘quickening in the pace of decommissioning’. They also pointed out that this funding would be ‘stringently monitored’ and ‘reviewed’ for evidence of progress and breaches and it was very clear that progress was contingent on ‘good faith’ throughout.

In my view, this initiative was risk prone from the very start as it appears that the political will never existed within the Direct Rule Administration to see through the implementation of penalties - even if the UDA defaulted, through continued involvement with criminality, violence and paramilitarism.

Every member of this House is aware of the circumstances which led to my announcement on the 10th August 2007 and in particular the assessment of the Chief Constable following the violent incidents in Carrickfergus and Bangor that he ‘would not give them fifty pence’ if the violence we witnessed was an example of the return on our investment.

Indeed at this stage I would like to put on record my personal appreciation for the efforts of the PSNI in trying to manage an escalating and difficult situation which has been brought about by the continued involvement of various UDA factions and their internecine violent feuding.

I would also like to convey the best wishes of this House to the Constable who was shot in the back during the incidents in Carrickfergus while trying to uphold law and order. I would also like to express my admiration to the people of Carrickfergus who spoke so powerfully about their experiences on radio this morning.

It has been my hope that our new Administration would adopt a significantly different approach from the Direct Rule Administration by ensuring that the integrity of our institutions was safeguarded and that it would recognise the supremacy of law and order.

That is still my hope.

By setting a deadline for the UDA to begin ‘meaningful engagement’ with the International Decommissioning Body and make a ‘start to decommissioning’; I wanted to support not only the Chief Constable in his attempts to make our streets safer but also to remind everyone of the background to this project.

I had hoped that the UDA would use this as an opportunity to draw a line under their unlawful activities, and the use of violence which has ensnared entire communities within their grip.

They could have grasped that opportunity by responding to the will of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland by demonstrably starting the decommissioning process.

In the past few weeks they have met again with the International Decommissioning Body. We are told there are those within the UDA who have tried to engage more meaningfully with General de Chastelain than they have over the past two years since commencing talks with the Commission, or in the past thirteen years since they first called their ceasefire in 1994.

I welcome these moves but the context of Northern Ireland politically, economically and socially has shifted so positively over the past twelve months. The onus is now on the UDA leadership to deliver fully on their responsibilities to the entire Northern Ireland community. Those living in communities where the rod of paramilitary rule still reigns, are often among the most disadvantaged and poorest in society whose dreams of a better life are being trodden on by an organisation which has not recognised that the world has moved on.

Over the past number of months, I have considered carefully what the Chief Constable and his senior officers have said. Following each of the violent outbreaks I have listened to the comments of the First Minister and other elected representatives from affected areas and I have consulted widely.

I offered a CTI options paper to my Executive colleagues in early July. They indicated that they were content for me to decide the way forward on this challenging issue. I have studied intently the recent reports of the International Monitoring Commission and I have met and spoken with a broad range of interested parties including highly respected, well-meaning intermediaries, local elected representatives, British and Irish Government Ministers, community organisations General de Chastelain and indeed the UPRG and the UDA and I would like to emphasise to this House that on each occasion I have listened very carefully to what has been said and factored it into my own overall thinking.

Perhaps more importantly, I have been out and about visiting local people in local communities throughout some of the target areas. While I can appreciate the difficulties of programmes aimed at conflict transformation, not surprisingly, the people living in the estates at the receiving end of paramilitary violence and dominance were united in their view. They felt that no matter how well intentioned, the CTI initiative was being undermined by the continuation of violence and paramilitary attacks and was not delivering what was expected of it. I should add that I was delighted personally by the warm welcome I received from the people in these disadvantaged loyalist areas, and I say now, that whatever happens about CTI, I will not abandon these neighbourhoods.

Members, their views are shared by citizens the length and breadth of Northern Ireland who are subjected to media reports of violence, pipe bombings, shootings and beatings.

I sincerely don’t believe that there is a law abiding or right thinking citizen in Northern Ireland who considers for one moment that the continued use of illegally held weapons, being used for illegal purposes, by members of an illegal organisation, does not constitute a breach of the ‘good faith’ or ‘risk’ taken by the Government in this initiative.

I am aware that there are those who think this type of initiative should never have been embarked upon.

I know there are those who say this funding should have been cut the day the police officer was shot, or when the Chief Constable made his scathing remarks. I am aware there are those who think that Ministers should treat deadlines like elastic bands. And I am aware there are those who may think I should carry on regardless. I can understand the diversity of opinion and frustration on all sides.

Of course, there is the argument that any initiative that hastens the dismantling of a paramilitary group should be given a chance to do just that. It would have been wrong for me to completely close the door on any such opportunity but it would also be wrong now if I failed to show determination and resolve. I can’t stand over programmes aimed at quickening the pace of decommissioning and reducing paramilitary activity when those same paramilitaries are prepared to flaunt their criminality in the face of the police and the rest of our community.

The UDA seem intent in doing just that by the continued use of violence. Its fractious nature suggests that the organisation is simply not at this time able to meet the objectives of CTI.

I have of course obligations to people working on the ground, to the managing agent but also to the continued problem of extending outreach to hard to reach communities and devising the most appropriate vehicle to get there. CTI has produced some outcomes but its primary aim with its primary target audience does not seem achievable at this time. I feel sympathetic to those people involved in CTI, people totally unconnected to the UDA, as the failure of others is no reflection on them. But now is the time for me to exercise both political judgement and leadership.

Such is the ill thought nature of this initiative I am aware there are those who would seek to judicially review any decision to withold the funding and there are others who are planning to judicially review, under equality legislation, any continuation of the funding. Therefore, I have had to consider the options available to me. I have considered Senior Counsel’s legal opinion, both in-house and external, in relation to the CTI programme, its aims and to our responsibilities and obligations to the various parties.

While others may view recent events differently or may decide that law and order is not a priority at this stage, I beg to differ. My political compass is fixed and it does not involve prioritising the illegal over the legal or the law breaker above the law abiding. The cycle of community involvement equating to paramilitary involvement will have to be broken once and for all.

I do not believe the CTI project can be justified any longer and I therefore propose to end it immediately.

Also at a time when budgets are closely contested and when numerous community groups are turned down for applications involving relatively minor sums, I cannot continue to justify the funding of a programme that is not able to deliver.

What I can pledge is that we will leave no community behind or disadvantaged, and I will talk to elected representatives and others in the target areas to see how we can achieve that objective together. I will make every effort to ensure that additional funds are allocated to deprived loyalist communities. I have also instructed officials to ensure that any employees affected by this decision are given due consideration. But the CTI initiative will now cease as a DSD funded project.

Contrary to some comments, I have not been waiting for 60 days to elapse, so I could axe the CTI project.

I do so with regret and after long and arduous consideration. I have, however, heard contradictory comment from some UPRG spokespersons who argue that on the one hand the project has nothing to do with the UDA, yet on the other that any interference with it could derail the peace process!

I reject this entirely.

To the UDA I say, this should not be used as an excuse to go backwards. There is only one way to go and that is forward. Go and do the good things you were planning for November. And, if there is tangible evidence of positive change in terms of decommissioning and criminality, then I am confident that my colleagues on the Executive will not be found wanting in supporting that change.

For myself this has been a difficult and pressurised time. There has been a sustained campaign of briefing against me and attempts to destabilise those around me.

In the end, however, I know in my heart, over and above the complexities of assessing CTI, that the decision I have taken in my conscience is right.

Under the new political dispensation this Executive is seeking to make a real difference for our people. That starts by setting higher standards for justice and democracy than have existed heretofore.

Terminating CTI, staying true to the position I announced over 60 days ago, is my modest contribution to that process."


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