Northern Ireland

Time to decommission commission?

The body that monitors paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland has again warned that dissident republicans are highly active and pose a serious threat, but stressed that they don't have the capacity for the campaign of violence mounted by the Provisional IRA.

Image caption The title Oglaigh na hEireann is used by dissident republicans

The Independent Monitoring Commission also appears to accept that it might be time for it to be decommissioned.

BBC NI Home Affairs correspondent Vincent Kearney reports.

For much of its history, IMC reports were scrutinised for what they said about the activities of the Provisional IRA. In the latest report, the organisation merits just two paragraphs.

The focus on Wednesday, as in other recent reports, was the activities of dissident republicans.

The latest assessment doesn't contain any surprises, and in many ways simply states the obvious.

It reflects the police view that dissidents remain highly active and pose a serious threat, with the Real and Continuity IRA continuing to recruit and train new members, trying to acquire weapons, and targeting potential victims.

Weaponry

But the IMC also goes out of its way to draw a distinction between the abilities and capacity of dissidents and the level of threat posed by the Provisional IRA.

The commission says dissidents don't enjoy significant local or international support, and don't have "comparable resources in terms of personnel, money, organisation and cohesion, or range of weaponry and expertise."

One of the IMC members, John Grieve, is a former head of the anti-terrorist branch in London and spent much of his time combatting IRA violence. He had this to say when asked to characterise the nature of the current threat:

"It's horrible and it's ghastly for the victims.

"I'm not underplaying that part of it, but in terms of the temper, scale, range, resources, skills and ability, these people are nowhere near what the Provisional IRA could put together. They are just not in the same league at all."

Strong and possibly provocative words, but the commission says they are an accurate reflection of the current situation.

Turning to the Provisional IRA, the IMC says the situation hasn't changed since its last report six months ago.

It says the organisation "has maintained its political course in the period under review and... will continue to do so".

UDA arms

As for the main loyalist groups, the report notes that neither the UDA or the UVF have been involved in any acts of terrorism, but says some members of the organisations have remained involved in a range of criminal activity.

Significantly, the commission also signals that it doesn't believe all of the UDA's weapons have been decommissioned, stating that "the delivery may have been uneven".

The IMC gave a similar verdict on UVF decommissioning last year.

While the 23rd report by the IMC details the activities of paramilitary groups, its continuing activities are also being questioned. Sinn Fein, long-standing opponents of the commission, have again called for it to be abolished.

The commission was set up in a very different political and security climate and was tasked with overseeing the winding-down of the Provisional IRA and loyalist paramilitaries.

Now that the main groups have decommissioned their weapons, or most of them, and renounced violence, is it now time for the IMC itself to be decommissioned?

Since it was established seven years ago, it has cost almost £7m to run, with the bill shared by the British and Irish governments.

I asked John Grieve if he believed it was time to call it a day.

He said he understands why the issue would be raised at a time of cuts in public spending, and seems to have some sympathy with the view that it may be time for the commission to be consigned to the history books.

"The joy of living in a democracy is that the governments make that decision, but I listen with interest, and some sympathy, to people who were thinking about whether we should still be here," he says.

The IMC is due to publish its next report in six months. Whether it will still be around this time next year is far from clear.

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