I am pleased to come to the Seanad to present the Independent Reporting Commission Bill. It is brought forward to give effect to one among a number of commitments arising under the Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan – known as the Fresh Start Agreement.
Senators will recall that in September 2015 the Irish and British Governments convened a talks process in Northern Ireland to address the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement of 2014, as well as trust and confidence issues stemming from the legacy of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland that had led to difficulties at the Northern Ireland Executive in the course of 2015.
Following ten weeks of talks the Fresh Start Agreement was concluded on 17 November 2015. The Agreement provides a roadmap for the implementation of many aspects of the Stormont House Agreement of 23 December 2014, including measures to support institutional reform at the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive, and financial and welfare reform in Northern Ireland.
The Agreement also sets out a strategic approach for ending paramilitarism in Northern Ireland and tackling organised crime, especially cross-Border crime. It contains a firm commitment to achieving a society free of paramilitarism, to working for the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations and their structures and to challenging paramilitary attempts to control communities.
An important thread that ran through the Talks was the need to seek to tackle the legacy of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland on a cross-cutting basis – if you will, to see it as a whole of society issue, rather than solely through the lens of security and policing.
In this regard among the key elements of the Agreement is the establishment of the Joint Agency Task Force as provided for in the Agreement. The Task Force is a cross-Border, multi-agency body which has been established in order to enhance co-operation between police, revenue and other law enforcement agencies, at both strategic and operational levels, in tackling cross-border organised crime. It is led by the police and revenue services in both jurisdictions and it has been taking forward a range of targeted actions to tackle serious criminal activities that exploit the border and impact particularly on border communities.
Another key element is the Northern Ireland Executive’s Strategy to end Paramilitarism. In line with the Agreement, the Executive appointed an expert panel to develop recommendations for the disbandment of paramilitary groups. That panel was comprised of Lord John Alderdice, Professor Monica McWilliams and Mr. John McBurney and it reported to the Executive in June 2016. Based on the Panel’s report, the Executive published its Action Plan on Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime on 19 July 2016.
The Action Plan adopts an Executive-wide strategic approach to measures aimed at ending paramilitary activity, including measures to promote a culture of lawfulness, to support persons moving away from paramilitary activity to do so, to tackle criminality linked to paramilitaries and to address broader societal challenges, such as educational and economic disadvantage that can be exploited by paramilitarism.
The Fresh Start Agreement also provides for the establishment by the two Governments of a body to monitor and report on the implementation of the various measures in the Agreement aimed at ending paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. This body is the Independent Reporting Commission.
In my previous capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I signed an International Agreement between Ireland and the UK on the establishment of Independent Reporting Commission on 13 September 2016. The Agreement, which is included in the Schedule to the Bill, outlines the agreed structure, functions, objectives and other necessary arrangements for the Commission, and the Bill before the House will provide for these in law.
It is the intention that reporting on the implementation of the Executive’s Action Plan will be a priority for the Commission in order to help to support and to ensure its implementation by the Executive.
Turning now to the Bill itself, it has twelve sections which provide for the establishment of the Commission in accordance with the terms of the International Agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Section 1 contains the definitions of terms used in the Bill. Section 2 provides for the establishment and status of the Commission as an independent body with the legal capacity of a body corporate.
Section 3 articulates the objective and functions of the Commission. These are as set out in the Agreement between the Governments establishing the Commission and they follow directly from the Fresh Start Agreement.
The Commission’s primary objective is the promotion of progress towards ending paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland in the interests of long-term peace and stability in society, and stable and inclusive devolved Government in Northern Ireland.
The functions of the Commission in relation to the remaining threat of paramilitary activity will be to report on the progress that is being made towards ending continuing paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland.
Section 4 provides that the Minister shall provide the Commission, on a basis to be determined by the Government, with funding, premises, facilities and other services as may be necessary for its proper functioning. The costs of the Commission will be shared between the Governments.
Section 5 provides for the necessary privileges, immunities and inviolabilities of the Commission.
Section 6 sets out certain duties on the Commission in the performance of its functions, notably that it shall not do anything that might put at risk the life or safety of any person, have a prejudicial effect in Ireland or the UK on national security interests, legal proceedings, or the prevention, investigation, detection or prosecution of crime.
These provisions at sections 5 and 6 are particularly important given the obviously sensitive nature of the matters with which the Commission will be dealing. They are also important in ensuring that there is no unintentional interference with the work of An Garda Síochána and the PSNI in their ongoing work to tackle paramilitary groups and criminal gangs.
Section 7 of the Bill provides for controls on the disclosure of information obtained in the performance of their functions unless authorised by or on behalf of the Commission and it also facilitates cooperation between the Commission and An Garda Síochána.
The lifespan anticipated for the Commission in the course of the Fresh Start Agreement talks was about five years and section 8 provides for the future dissolution of the Commission by mutual agreement of the two Governments.
Section 9 amends the Freedom of Information Act 2014 to preclude the application of the Freedom of Information Act to the Commission. This is required by the nature of the sensitive information that the Commission will deal with.
Section 10 provides for the laying of the Commission’s reports to the two Governments before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Commission will report at least annually.
Sections 11 and 12 are standard provisions for legislation relating to the expenses arising being paid out of monies provided by the Oireachtas and the short title and commencement arrangements.
As provided for in the Fresh Start Agreement, the Commission will be a four-member body and the Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive have advanced matters by nominating the four Commissioners.
The Irish Government has nominated Mr. Tim O’Connor, a former Secretary General to the President and a respected former diplomat. The British Government has nominated Mr. Mitchell Reiss who was the United States Special Envoy to Northern Ireland between 2003 and 2007. The Northern Ireland Executive has nominated Mr. John McBurney a well-known and respected Northern Ireland solicitor and Professor Monica McWilliams, who has a long experience in politics and public service in Northern Ireland. John McBurney and Monica McWilliams were members of the Executive’s Expert Panel on the Disbandment of Paramilitaries which reported in June 2016.
All four nominated Commissioners have extensive experience of the situation in Northern Ireland and they will have the full support of the Irish and British Governments and of the parties in Northern Ireland in bringing forward their work.
Of course, the Seanad will know well that there is an ongoing process of talks at Stormont aimed at establishing the Executive following the Assembly elections earlier this year.
While much progress has been made in reaching agreement on a range of important issues, it has not yet proved possible to finalise an agreement that will facilitate the formation of the Executive for the time being.
That is, of course, a disappointment.
The Government maintains its strong, ongoing commitment to the success of the institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement and we will continue to play our full part in supporting the resumption of power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Minister Coveney has encouraged all the parties in Northern Ireland to maintain contact with each other over the coming weeks with the aim of securing agreement.
Senators, this Bill is not without precedent and it follows in many respects the arrangements that were successfully put in place in regard to other bodies established to further the objectives of the Good Friday Agreement, notably the Independent Monitoring Commission; a cross border institution established by Senator McDowell when he was Minister for Justice.
The Independent Reporting Commission will have an important role to play in bringing forward work aimed at bringing an end to paramilitarism and its insidious legacy that impacts on all communities in Northern Ireland. I look forward to finalising the Bill as soon as possible and to commencing the i9mportant work of the Commission.