A year ago, two paramilitary-style murders in Belfast provoked a political crisis in Stormont. Two families had been bereaved. Trust in politics and in the peace process was shaken.
There was a public outcry about the lingering grip of paramilitarism in some parts of Northern Ireland 18 years after its people had voted for a democratic future by endorsing the Belfast Agreement.
We are in a better place now. The Fresh Start deal of November 2015 allowed politics to start again. A new Executive was formed after last May’s elections, which also saw the beginning of a new dynamic in politics, which includes a formal opposition in the Assembly for the first time, while preserving the principle of power-sharing between unionist and nationalist parties.
An essential part of the Fresh Start agreement was a commitment by the Irish and British governments and the Executive to achieving a society free from the vestiges of paramilitarism. This means working to achieve the disbandment of paramilitary organisations. It also means challenging attempts by paramilitaries to exert control over vulnerable communities.
Appeal for change
Even though the political process is back on track, the murders this year of
, Michael McGibbon, and
were a reminder of the importance of ridding Northern Ireland from the shadow of the gunman. When I met Michael McGibbon’s widow, Joanne, after her loss, she made an appeal for change in her community, so that paramilitary groups could no longer try to control people through fear, intimidation and murder.
That work is under way. The Governments in Dublin and London, with the Northern Ireland Executive, are working together to ensure that those criminals who want to bring us backwards to a violent past are thwarted. This work is moving forward. Flowing from the Fresh Start agreement, a new cross-Border taskforce was established which is intensifying and expanding current North-South cooperation to disrupt and dismantle the gangs who exploit the border.
However, a security response is not enough if we are to rid society of paramilitarism. That was the conclusion of a report by Lord Alderdice, Monica McWilliams and John McBurney last June, which identified the issues which need to be addressed if this goal is to be achieved. These include detailed work at community level as well as across the civil and public service in Northern Ireland. The Executive has now developed an Action Plan on Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime to take this forward.
I welcome the Executive’s work and want to see political leaders in Northern Ireland putting their weight behind this initiative, ensuring its implementation is a success.
I do not underestimate the scale of the task involved in moving away from 50 years of paramilitarism. I and my colleagues in the Government are firmly resolved to make our contribution.
It is unacceptable that, 18 years after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, any single community in Northern Ireland should perceive itself to be under some form of control by criminal elements. It is unacceptable that criminals seek to police neighbourhoods through knee-cappings and punishment beatings.
That is why the Irish and British governments yesterday signed an international agreement establishing the Independent Reporting Commission. This is a key part of the Fresh Start measures intended to achieve the building of a society free from the scourge of paramilitarism.
The commission will report on the implementation of the Executive's action plan. It will also make recommendations to the Executive on what else needs to be done. The four commissioners – one appointed by the Irish Government, one by the British government and two by the Executive – will be of sufficient standing to exert quiet influence in addition to their formal reporting responsibilities.
The commission can make an important contribution by improving understanding of how society, in particular the civil and public service, can work most effectively to reduce the space occupied by paramilitaries in communities.
The Government will take the necessary measures so the new commission can be up and running as soon as possible.
The work of the commission will take place in the context of our wider efforts to promote reconciliation. I want this work to take place alongside the implementation of a framework for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.
Achieving a Northern Ireland free from paramilitarism will not be easy. Many challenges will have to be overcome, but this work is essential not just for the people of Northern Ireland but for all who share this island.
Charlie Flanagan is the Minister for Foreign Affairs