Cuts to police may damage efforts to tackle paramilitarism, MPs told

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The possibility of budget cuts to police and community services may damage efforts to tackle paramilitarism, MPs have been warned.

Members of the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) issued the warning as they addressed the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

The IRC was established jointly by the UK and Irish governments to report on progress towards ending paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

In the absence of a functioning Stormont executive, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris is responsible for setting the budget for Northern Ireland.

John McBurney, from the IRC, said it would be damaging to the goal of tackling paramilitary activity if the PSNI experienced significant cuts.

“It will be very, very damaging if the funding for the Paramilitary Crime Task Force is cut back, it will be very, very damaging to the whole endeavour to bring about the ending of paramilitarism and terrorism throughout Northern Ireland,” he said.

“If neighbourhood policing is significantly cut back that will be very, very damaging to the entire endeavour.

“And I think the Chief Constable and his top team of officers, they appreciate that very, very intently.”

The IRC commissioners were giving evidence to the committee on the effect of paramilitary activity and organised crime on society in Northern Ireland.

The terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland was raised to severe last month, meaning an attack is highly likely.

Mr McBurney said the work of the IRC is dependent on the continuation of community programmes tackling paramilitarism.

“We can’t be doing all of that and then discover that the structures that have been put in place to carry all this forward are then being allowed to wither on the vine and even disappear.”

Mr McBurney also said that cuts to community groups that aim to prevent young people becoming involved in paramilitary crime were leaving these groups “emaciated”.

“There are youth services which are diverting young people from being drawn into these paramilitary groups, there are youth services that are now on their knees in terms of funding,” he said.

Mr McBurney added: “These are youth workers who have been doing sterling work in diverting young people away from being drawn into these paramilitary groups and diverting them away from trouble at flashpoint times for various reasons, connected to different events through the year.

“We step back and we witness these being emaciated, being diminished in their resources and all of that is a great, great concern if we are serious about prioritising the ending of paramilitarism.”

IRC commissioner Tim O’Connor appealed directly to the chair of the committee, Conservative MP Simon Hoare, to ensure that the PSNI’s resources are “protected” amid the expectations of budgetary cuts.

“We would be making the plea to you through your good offices, and I know you’ve had the Secretary of State with you earlier in the week, that we have to, at every opportunity, keep reinforcing how fundamentally important that is that resources continued to be supplied to, in this case the PSNI, but also all the other dimensions, because what this issue has proven itself to be is resilient,” he said.

Mr Hoare responded: “We will do our best, certainly.”

Alliance MP Stephen Farry asked the commissioners about the impact of the “budget crisis” on tackling paramilitary activity.

Mr O’Connor said that cuts to resources aimed at tackling paramilitarism could jeopardise the journey to a peaceful society.

“Under the tackling paramilitarism programme, all the various initiatives that have been done, we now actually have a framework in place, if I can use that word, towards bringing this to a conclusion,” he said.

“And I think it would be a huge mistake, now, if actually we were to kind of start dialling back on the resources, they’re more necessary than ever, if we’re going to get to the fully peaceful society that we all seek to achieve.”

Fellow commissioner of the IRC Monica McWilliams also said that community and youth services were necessary to transition those in paramilitary groups.

“If you don’t tackle it with mental health services, employability, opportunities for the future, then you won’t get the transition,” she said.

“And if that’s being taken away, particularly the youth services, which I just heard about today, what kind of services are we going to provide this summer?”

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