The new Stormont Executive needs to urgently move to put an end to “intolerable” paramilitary attacks, the Secretary of State has said.
In an interview with the News Letter, Theresa Villiers urged the DUP and Sinn Fein, the two major parties which signed up to the Fresh Start Agreement, to prioritise the aspects of that document which deal with dismantling paramilitary structures.
Speaking in Stormont House while just a couple of hundred yards across the Stormont estate the Assembly’s new MLAs were being shown into their offices, Ms Villiers put considerable emphasis on efforts to eradicate paramilitarism.
Clearly concerned by a recent spate of vicious assaults and murders by dissident republicans, Ms Villiers said that ending such crimes would involve not just political condemnation, but also reform of the criminal justice system and moves to encourage members of the public to come forward to give evidence against those who they know to be responsible.
Explaining her personal desire to address the issue, Ms Villiers said: “The murder of Michael McGibbon and other recent paramilitary-style attacks are just such a big reason why it’s so important to press ahead with implementing the Fresh Start Agreement.”
Ms Villiers said that she felt “so strongly that these type of attacks just have to stop” and said that there were some “far-reaching commitments in the Fresh Start Agreement on addressing paramilitarism”.
She went on: “Now the elections are over, it’s very much time to get down to work on implementing all of Stormont House and Fresh Start, but I felt particularly strongly at this stage about the paramilitarism aspects of the Fresh Start because [of] the tragedies that we’ve seen over the last few months.”
She added: “In preparation for this interview, I received some briefings about yet more attacks that there have been recently...”
However, when asked if the Provisional IRA had any involvement in the crimes to which she alluded, Ms Villiers said that she was “not aware of any recent cases which are linked to mainstream republicans”.
During the election campaign, Sinn Fein once more denied that the Provisional IRA still exists and argued that therefore the anti-paramilitary provisions of the Fresh Start deal will have no bearing on them.
When that was put to Ms Villiers she said: “My view and the view of Sinn Fein on the continued existence of the IRA is different”, but said she would “like to see things resolved in relation to Sinn Fein’s public position on the existence of PIRA”.
However, despite that fundamental disagreement, Ms Villiers insisted that paramilitarism could still be ended despite Sinn Fein’s stance.
And she stressed that her comments should not be seen as evidence of a behind-the-scenes crisis in implementing the agreement.
“The implementation [of the agreement] was going well before the election, so this is not [saying] there’s a problem; this is just a recognition that this is just so important and it’s very important that we work together to tackle things like delay in the criminal justice system so that we have a better chance of ensuring that people responsible for crimes are held to account in the courts.”
Scale of DUP-SF triumph a surprise
The DUP and Sinn Fein’s return to Stormont with the loss of only one seat between them is “something of a surprise”, given the length of time they have been in coalition, Theresa Villiers has said,
Ms Villiers said that it was “quite an impressive result that two governing parties have been returned at more or less the same strength that they had before”, and pointed out that many other coalition governments around the world could hardly expect such an outcome after nine years in power.
She said the election had “run pretty smoothly” – just months after last year’s crisis “when we really did look as if we were on the brink of potential collapse...”
The Secretary of State added: “Politics here is probably more stable than it has been for many years thanks to the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements, so there’s a good opportunity for the Executive to work on people’s priorities.”