Justice minister defends delays in ‘difficult work' of tackling paramilitaries

Justice minister Claire Sugden
Justice minister Claire Sugden Justice minister Claire Sugden

STORMONT'S justice minister has hit back at critics who have described the Executive's approach to tackling paramilitary activity as lacklustre.

Claire Sugden told MLAs it was "difficult, laborious work" that could not be rushed and accused political opponents of trying to undermine public confidence.

"We are not taking a simplistic approach," she said.

"Premature attacks only serve to undermine public confidence in what we are doing and that serves no purpose."

Speaking during a debate in the assembly, the minister also defended a "high-level" action plan drawn up during the summer.

"This is not a tick box exercise," she said. "It is not a shopping list of recommendations with a price tag against each one because this is not what we will be doing to communities. It is about enabling, facilitating and nurturing communities to do it for themselves.

"It is about delivering long-term societal change and it takes time to build the relationships to make that happen."

A father-of-one was shot dead in west Belfast last month while dissident republicans have been responsible for a string of paramilitary-style shootings as well as targeting members of the security forces.

The UVF and units within the UDA have also been active in drug-dealing and racketeering in recent years.

The Fresh Start Agreement pledged to address paramilitarism and tackle organised crime.

A total of £10m was to be set aside this year to tackle continuing paramilitary activity.

Half was to come from the Executive and half from Westminster but last month it emerged that funding had not been released by the British government because Stormont had not provided a detailed strategy.

Ms Sugden said: "We did not rush to spend money and I make no apology for that.

"We will need to spend every penny of that money and we are committed to spending it on the right things at the right time."

However, the minister said £4m had been invested in new forensic science equipment, £1 million had been allocated to help police investigate organised crime and the Probation Board was running two pilot programmes aimed at reducing re-offending.

Work is also ongoing with the Housing Executive on murals and bonfires, she said.

Alliance Party MLA Stewart Dickson, who tabled a motion calling for an end to all forms of paramilitary activity, claimed the Executive had failed to deal with the scourge.

"We are highly sceptical on the Executive's action plan response - an action plan that was produced in June 2016 and is clearly very weak," he said.

"There is a clear lack of strategic analysis; the plan does not produce clear targets, time scales or resources for implementation.

"There is little evidence of fresh thinking or of a willingness to engage in that."