Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Hon. Gordon Smith
Commissioner - Helsinki Commission

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I appreciate the effort of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in holding this hearing to examine one of the most important issues in Northern Ireland. It has now been nearly six years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed – a moment of hope for all the people of Northern Ireland. The opportunities this Agreement offered, however, have not been fully realized for a variety of reasons, and I am hopeful that the CSCE can help raise awareness of all the issues surrounding this important question.

Police reform – creating a service that both Protestants and Catholics can rely upon for safety and security – is critical to ensure a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. I am pleased by the progress that has taken place thus far. Civilian oversight is well established, helped in large part by the admirable job being done by the Police Ombudsman who is here today. Additionally, the multi-party Policing Board evaluates the provision of police service and monitors all related human rights issues. Not all parties have elected to send representatives to the Policing Board, however, a situation that I hope will be rectified soon. Full participation would send an important signal that the police service has the political backing necessary to gain support among the population. Furthermore, young Catholics are being recruited to join the service after years of exclusion. This integration is important, both to establish confidence in the police service and to break down barriers between the two communities. I hope that all parties will urge their young men and women to consider joining the Northern Ireland Police Service.

Of course, the process of police reform is not complete. I am encouraged, however, that progress has been made.

Unfortunately, there remains a serious problem with escalating paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. Abductions, beatings, and extortion continue to occur far too often. Paramilitary groups, particularly the IRA, still have weapons in hand that were supposed to have been turned in years ago. I am aware of the sensitivity surrounding the decommissioning of these weapons, but little progress has been made. There should be no uncertainty about this: a return to the violence of the past should be firmly and conclusively rejected. Concrete action, not just rhetoric, is necessary to move to the next stage. I hope that the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, will use its influence within the IRA to convince them that paramilitary activity must come to an end. Vigilante justice simply is not an option.

Thank you.