'No one is surprised the Provisional IRA still exists' - Northern Ireland’s Theresa Villiers backs PSNI claims
A police assessment that the Provisional IRA still exists did not surprise the British Government, says Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.
Ms Villiers said she shared the view of the region's police chief that some structures of the organisation remain in place but it is not engaged in terrorist activity.
The spotlight has been shone on the supposedly defunct paramilitary group since some of its members were linked by detectives to the murder of a father-of-nine in Belfast almost two weeks ago.
Asked at the weekend about the status of the PIRA given the suspected connection to the shooting of 53-year-old Kevin McGuigan, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable George Hamilton said it still exists but is not on a terror footing.
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Reacting to Mr Hamilton's view, Ms Villiers said: "It didn't come as a surprise to me. My understanding is, very much in line with that of the chief constable, that a number of the organisational structures of the Provisional IRA still exist but that there is no evidence it's involved in terrorism or paramilitary activity."
The police assessment that the IRA still exists - almost 20 years after its last ceasefire and a decade on from the apparent decommissioning of all its weapons - has triggered another political controversy at Stormont.
In the wake of the murder of ex-IRA man Mr McGuigan, unionists have threatened a bid to exclude Sinn Fein from the devolved powersharing Executive.
The Democratic Unionists have said if IRA involvement is proved they will ask Ms Villiers to support the exclusion move.
The Conservative MP today said she remained satisfied that all parties in the Assembly remained committed to peace."I think the crucial thing for politics in Northern Ireland is that all political parties support and embrace the principles of democracy and consent," she said.
"I'm satisfied that is the case in terms of the parties in the Assembly. Were it to change in future that would obviously have very serious implications, but it is clearly the case, as far as I can see, that all the parties in the Executive support the Belfast Agreement and the principles of democracy and consent determining Northern Ireland's future."
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Ms Villiers said she had discussed the issue with Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and other political leaders in recent days.
The republican party has portrayed the reaction of unionists as cynical and opportunistic.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams yesterday countered the PSNI claims by asserting the IRA "has gone away".
Ms Villiers said she understood the sensitivities around the issue."I can understand the reaction of the unionists," she said.
"I think for all of us, the important thing to do is to look at the political implications on the basis of the facts and assessment of the evidence.
"And we have had the evidence and expert assessment of the chief constable that there isn't evidence to link the organisation, the leadership of the Provisional IRA, with these killings - although clearly a line of enquiry for the PSNI is that individual members of the Provisional IRA may well have been involved."
The Northern Ireland Secretary said all paramilitary groups - both republican and loyalist - should be disbanded.
"Clearly they shouldn't still exist, none of the these paramilitary organisations were ever justified," she said.
Police believe Mr McGuigan was shot in the Short Strand area of Belfast by members of the PIRA in co-operation with a group styling itself Action Against Drugs.
The victim, a former IRA prisoner, was suspected by some in the republican movement of involvement in the murder of former IRA leader Gerard "Jock" Davison in the nearby Markets area of Belfast three months ago.
Police suspect his killing was a revenge attack by Mr Davison's republican associates.
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DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson has said his party would press the Secretary of State about the "political realities" in the wake of the police assessment.
He said he and colleagues were also awaiting further updates from Mr Hamilton."As a party, there are a range of issues upon which we need more information in order to make informed judgments," he said.
"Needless to say, in current circumstances we believe that republicans have engaged in activity which is contrary to being committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means."
He added: "The police have indicated that members of the PIRA were involved in the murder of Kevin McGuigan. We want to know the extent and nature of any so-called command structure and who authorised this attack. If it is established that former PIRA prisoners were involved, then the Secretary of State must ensure their (early release) licences are revoked and they are returned to jail.
"We are facing a very serious situation which is distinguished from any previous crisis in that the PSNI are very clear in their assessment that PIRA members have been involved in murder. We entered government on the basis that everyone in the Executive supported the police, the courts and the rule of law. There can be no fudging of this issue and we will take every possible step to ensure the democratic process is not corrupted."
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Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said he did not believe the Sinn Fein leadership's denials about IRA activity.
"The Chief Constable has confirmed the truth of what Fianna Fail has believed for some time, that the Provisional IRA and its command structure continues in place to this day," he said.
Adding: "This is an exceptionally serious moment. A peace process that is the product of decades of hard work by very many people on all sides of the political spectrum has been put at risk by the dishonesty of the Provisional Sinn Fein and IRA leadership."He called for urgent bilateral meetings between the British and Irish governments and the PSNI and Garda in the Republic.
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Alan Kelly called on Gerry Adams to state the IRA "no longer exists and will never exist again".