Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 277-299)




  277. I am sorry that we should have kept you waiting for a couple of minutes; that is entirely the fault of the Chairman, who was a moment or two late in arriving himself for the preliminaries of the meeting. Miss O'Mara, we are delighted to welcome you all. I think it is the third time, the third departmental context in which I have met you, and Mr Leach, as he well knows, is very familiar to me, from a past activity. We will operate on exactly the same basis as we usually do, but we will endeavour to make the questions follow a logical order. We are, I fear, going to be interrupted by a division, so there will be a short pause, but we can do nothing about that. You should feel entirely free to gloss any answer you give, either orally here, or in writing hereafter, if you feel that your answer, which I am sure will be extremely good, still needs improvement; and, equally, we will feel free to ask supplementary questions in writing after the event if, on reading the transcript, such questions occur to us. Now, in addition to introducing your colleagues to us, is there anything you would like to say, in advance of our asking questions?
  (Miss O'Mara) Yes, I would like to, if I may. May I introduce my team, first of all. I am Margaret O'Mara, the Associate Director of Policing and Security in the Northern Ireland Office. The colleague on my left is Stephen Leach, as you have mentioned, Chairman, he is the Director of Criminal Justice in the NIO. Billy Stevenson, to his left, is the Head of our Victims Liaison Unit; and Frank Brannigan, on my right, is the Acting Chief Executive of the Compensation Agency. I thought it might be helpful to the Committee if I spoke briefly, at the outset, from an NIO perspective, about the issue into which you are inquiring, not least because events have moved on since we submitted our memorandum to you in November. At that time, our concern focused on the effects of the so-called loyalist feud between members of the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force; those effects were being felt most deeply in the Shankill Road, Tigers Bay/Mount Vernon areas of Belfast, and at the time of our memorandum had resulted in almost 300 requests for relocation, together with a further seven in the Newtownabbey area. Fortunately, that feud seemed to be resolved around Christmas, but since then there has been a spate of apparently sectarian attacks, characterised, as you will well know, by the throwing of pipe-bombs; they have focused on Larne, Coleraine and North Belfast, although other areas have also been affected, and they, too, have resulted in requests for rehousing. The Government deplores this paramilitary activity and is most anxious to see it brought to a swift end; however, it does not have a single root, and so it is particularly hard to tackle. Some attacks seem purely criminal in motivation, as members of paramilitary organisations try to line their own pockets, through burglary and robbery; others appear to be personal, reflecting marital disputes or individual rivalries. Some attacks seem to be undertaken not for personal gain but to bolster the finances of the organisation concerned. Others are undertaken by paramilitary organisations to keep the community in fear and to bypass the normal law enforcement channels. The attacks which took place in the Shankill in the autumn reflected dissension among the different loyalist paramilitary organisations, and the most recent attacks seem to have been undertaken by loyalists for sectarian reasons. And just as the causes of paramilitary intimidation are complex, so there can be no single solution to the problem as we see it. Criminal activity, whatever its source, will be tackled in the normal way. To the extent that we are seeing the emergence of organised crime, it comes under the umbrella of the new Organised Crime Task Force, chaired by our Minister of State in the NIO; this has brought together the key agencies involved in dealing with the problem in Northern Ireland, specifically to aid the healthy transition of the Province to a responsible, civic society. Community restorative justice schemes have been seen by those who operate them as a way of enforcing justice in local communities, but there are real concerns they could, at times, legitimise unacceptable behaviour. The Criminal Justice Review saw a continuing role for community-based restorative justice schemes, but was aware that the dangers of coercion and threat, real or implied, were ever-present concerns. And so, therefore, it recommended important safeguards, including that schemes should receive referrals from a statutory criminal justice agency, rather than from within the community, that they should be accredited by and subject to standards laid down by Government, that they should be subject to independent inspection and that they should have no role in determining guilt or innocence. The Review did not endorse schemes which purport to deal with criminal activity but which operate outside the criminal justice system and without links to it. However, Ministers believe the best way of countering these paramilitary attacks and bringing normality closer is to bolster the confidence of the whole community in the law enforcement agencies, and that is why the Government attaches such importance to all-party representation on the new Policing Board, to which the police, in future, will be accountable. Finally, the police are seeking to root out sectarian attacks by increased patrolling in the areas of highest activity; in North Belfast, Larne and Coleraine, they have brought in the Army in support, although we all hope that will not be necessary for long. In Coleraine, the police have announced an eight-point plan, which includes stepping up the stop and search of individuals in vehicles, carrying out searches of property, and seeking to obtain greater forensic analysis of items recovered at crime scenes, and also they are increasing the extent of their covert operations. And on top of that, they are working closely with the local media to keep them abreast of developments, and are encouraging community groups to come together to find a solution. That, clearly, is the key; the greater the co-operation the community can give the police, in alerting them to incipient problems and helping them track down offenders, in providing the witness statements which enable the attackers to be brought to book, the faster the evil will be eradicated. Intimidation, sadly, if understandably, does lead individuals to seek to move elsewhere; the NIO's role in helping them do so is limited. The provision of housing elsewhere is handled by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, in the case of owner-occupiers, under the Scheme for the Purchase of Evacuated Dwellings, and that is the responsibility of the devolved administration. Where we do have a role is in the provision of compensation to those intimidated out of their homes by paramilitary activity; where they are eligible to claim compensation, under one or both of the statutory schemes, the Compensation Agency administers, and our memorandum provided details of that. Thank you very much.

  278. Thank you very much indeed. I hope I said that you were most welcome, and you are the more welcome for that extra expansion of the memorandum. It may well be that colleagues will want to raise questions of a supplementary nature, arising out of what you have just said; and, indeed, since one or two of our number have got to leave early, I will verify whether anybody who is in that condition has got questions they specifically want to ask on what you have just said before they have to leave. I do not see any sign of anybody wishing to bring something forward. It may well be the case, however, because it was a substantial incremental statement to what you had provided us with in November, that, on reflection, we may have questions which we will need to follow up hereafter. Let me start, however, and I am now going back to the memorandum, which, of course, was the basis which we had, prior to today, that includes figures for the number of cases of alleged intimidation reported to the police. Do you think that this represents a realistic guide to the level of intimidation, obviously, Province-wide, or is there likely to be a degree of under-reporting?
  (Miss O'Mara) I am sure that there is a degree of under-reporting. I believe that you interviewed, you had before you, Assistant Chief Constable McQuillan, from the RUC, who made this very point. To the extent that we are talking about intimidation, it is quite likely, I would think, that individuals, by very virtue of the fact that they are being intimidated, will not want to report what has been going on. Obviously, to some extent, it depends on what has happened; if it is a question of serious damage to property, if it is a question of somebody being seriously injured, taken to hospital, then those incidents will be reported and will be picked up and the police will be aware of them, even if individuals are not prepared to say who it was who attacked them, perhaps will not even be prepared to admit to something that has gone on, but the incident will be reported. However, there must be a lot, I think, of other cases which simply never come to the attention of the police, and so therefore are not picked up, so there must be a substantial degree of those; but, unfortunately, like the police, because we are reliant on the police's figures, we could not really estimate how much we are not picking up as a result.

  279. But obviously, that was going to be my next question. Recently, we did an inquiry into fuel smuggling, and a number of us are familiar with the separate problem of drugs smuggling, and the difficulty for the law enforcement agencies to be able to calculate how much is actually getting through, which they are not seizing. So we will have to rest on that statement, and I do understand the circumstances. You may respond to me that you have covered what I am about to ask in what you said at the beginning, but to make absolutely certain that we have it on the record, is the present statutory offence of intimidation broad enough to catch all cases where people feel intimidated to the extent of leaving their homes?
  (Miss O'Mara) You may be picking up a comment that we made in our own memorandum, talking about the fairly narrow definition. I think we said that there simply because we were conscious that, in giving figures for intimidation, we might well not be picking them all up, which is not to say that there are not other offences of which people might be guilty, one can think of things like assault, criminal damage, public order offences. Now, in the statistics they will be recorded under another heading, they might be offences which the layman, quite properly, would consider to be intimidation; so, to that extent, there is under-recording of that kind, too. It does not mean to say they are not there in the statistics, some things are not in the statistics at all, there are other things that are in the statistics under another heading.

  280. That is helpful. Do you think that there is a need to broaden the scope of the definition of intimidation, in order to make sure that we were catching all the cases that the man on the Clapham omnibus would regard as falling into that category?
  (Miss O'Mara) I am not sure to what extent that would help. If we were saying that we wanted to broaden the definition in order to be able to prosecute, then I do not think that that is the situation in which we are, because the difficulty in prosecution is not one of the nature of the offence, the problem there clearly is in finding admissible evidence, because people are not prepared to come forward, either as witnesses or even to claim that an offence has been committed. If it is in terms of actually picking up the problem and seeing the scale of the problem, what I would be concerned about, I think, is that if we widened the definition of intimidation to pick up some of these other things then they would drop out of something else, and then when we were looking at public order, or we were looking at assault, we would not be picking up the right number of cases there; so I am not sure quite how easy it would be. But that is a layman's point of view.

  Chairman: I ought to have said, when I made my introductory remarks, we are relying on you to orchestrate any answers that others besides yourself would wish to give to any of the questions we ask, but we will leave that, obviously, in your hands.

Mr Hunter

  281. We are trying to build up an accurate picture of the extent of relocation both within and outside Northern Ireland, and on page 2 of your memorandum you have given some figures, I wonder if you can clarify whether these are individuals or households numbers that you have listed there?
  (Miss O'Mara) They are numbers for households.

  282. Do you have the figures for individuals?
  (Miss O'Mara) No, we do not. These are figures that do not come directly from us, they are picked up largely through the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and through others. I do not know whether you have any more detail on that, Stephen.
  (Mr Leach) I do not, actually.[1] Most of the agencies operating in this field are the responsibility of the devolved administration, and we tried to get a certain amount of information in the memorandum, but we are not directly responsible for that area.

  283. I wonder then if you can help us, perhaps you cannot, with the corresponding figures for people who relocate within the Province?
  (Mr Leach) I think the same point applies, that these would be picked up by the devolved agencies; they might be picked up on a basis of emergency need, that is that the particular factor of intimidation might not be separately recorded. We do not have that information and I am not sure that information exists. If it would assist the Committee, we could ask the office of the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, whether some information could be made available.


  284. I think that is something on which we can certainly check. I am not quite sure whether you are volunteering to follow up or whether we will.
  (Mr Leach) I would be happy to, yes.

  285. I think it is probably better if you follow up, because, technically, we do not have a locus in asking questions of them. Let me ask, however, one supplementary question to the questions Mr Hunter asked, before I turn to Mr Clarke. I have a present constituency case where it is not merely the heart of the family that has gone into exile, this is for quite separate reasons, but other members of the family as well, living in different households. In the case of such an extended family, where basically the entire family had to go abroad, because those who remained would be regarded as a proxy for those who had been sent into exile, would those show up in the statistics, or would they, in fact, in a sense, be lost by concentration on the core family? The reason I ask is because they are in a different household.
  (Miss O'Mara) I would have thought, to the extent that they are being reported, the way that these get picked up is because people need rehousing, so if there was, effectively, more than one household involved then it would get picked up in that way; equally, the way they get picked up is under, as we have mentioned, the SPED scheme, the Scheme for the Purchase of Evacuated Dwellings. Again, if there was more than one house involved there, they would get picked up that way. I think, to that extent, one might expect more than one. But, obviously, if they were not being picked up under either scheme, if they were not looking for rehousing by the authorities and they were not looking for compensation for their homes then I think it would be more difficult, they probably would not be in the statistics at all.
  (Mr Leach) I think that is right.

Mr Clarke

  286. I wonder if I could move us off the statistics and start to look at the practicalities of dealing with those that, through intimidation, have to be relocated. In evidence given to us in our sessions, we have found that there are a variety of agencies which would seek to assist and co-ordinate relief and assistance to those that are intimidated; is there any body, to your knowledge, that has overall responsibility for co-ordinating that relief and assistance?
  (Mr Leach) Again, most of the statutory agencies which would have responsibility in this field are the responsibility of the devolved administration. We did make some enquiries, in preparing the memorandum, and the memorandum does point to the existence of some of that machinery, including, I think, the Displaced Families Inter-Agency Group, which is chaired, I think, by one of the health boards. So I think there is machinery there, although we do not have comprehensive information on that. But I think it is also worth saying that, at the operational level, when the statutory agencies are confronted with an individual in distress, possibly for this reason, they do co-operate quite effectively, in my experience, because of the good relations that exist at working level, and so there is interaction between Social Services, Probation, Housing Executive, to resolve immediate operational problems they are confronted with. So, I think, in that sense, there is effective co-ordination, yes.

  287. Can I just press, in terms of looking beyond more than simply co-operation, because, obviously, we are not talking about just the statutory agencies here, we are talking about all of those that would get involved in assisting those that are being terrorised. Is there any body that you know of that has a responsibility for co-ordinating all of that relief, not just co-operating but co-ordinating and having an overview of what relief is available?
  (Mr Leach) I think I would point again to the Displaced Families Group, which I referred to; that was active, I believe, in the aftermath of the Shankill feud, for example, in assisting families, and I think that will be the central element in the machinery.

  288. Would the Northern Ireland Office have a view as to whether or not such a key function as co-ordinating assistance to those intimidated out of their homes should be left to a voluntary body such as that, or do you think that there is a need for a statutory duty for somebody to co-ordinate that assistance?
  (Mr Leach) I think the body I referred to is not voluntary, in the sense that is in the voluntary sector, it is an inter-agency group, a co-ordinating body for public sector agencies and departments. As to whether there should be a statutory co-ordinating function, I am not sure that fixing arrangements in statute actually would lead to arrangements that were sufficiently flexible to meet what may well be a changing problem. As I think previous evidence has indicated, there have been perhaps unexpected examples of major relocation coming from the Shankill feud which might not have been foreseen; and, therefore, my own personal preference would be for active co-operation between departments, but not actually on a statutory basis. But this is, of course, because virtually all the agencies concerned are in the devolved field; it would be a matter for the devolved administration to reach a judgement on that.

  289. To show my hand, in my next question; could you give an estimate of the Government's annual spend on assisting those who have been made homeless as a result of paramilitary intimidation?
  (Mr Leach) I am not sure that I could, actually. Those costs would fall to the devolved agencies, in respect of relocations within Northern Ireland, and to other Exchequer departments, but also to local authorities, in respect of relocation to Great Britain. And in both cases I think that the costs might well arise under the head of meeting a sort of emergency need, and the particular factor of paramilitary intimidation might well not be recorded separately. So I am afraid that I do not have that information, and I am not actually sure that it is obtainable, in the form you propose.

  290. You are saying that it would be the devolved budgets of those organisations that are offering a service?
  (Mr Leach) That is right, and they might not distinguish between someone who was in immediate need of emergency restorative payments because of unemployment, or some other family problem, and paramilitary intimidation and other issues. Again, if it would help the Committee, I could certainly enquire not only of the devolved executive but also of Exchequer departments, to see if they can provide any further information there.

  Mr Clarke: It would be extremely helpful for us to get a view as to what the overall picture is, so thank you for that.

  Chairman: In following up on Mr Clarke's question, I think it would be of profound assistance, not so much to this Committee, though it would be helpful to the Committee, as to a wider public. I think the evidence given by the Assistant Chief Constable in the context of another report, another inquiry, on the Parades Commission, that Drumcree, in 1998, had cost £11 million, I think, did cause some people to catch their breath, and some sense of the order of dimension would be important, I think. That curious wailing, banshee noise, is, in fact, the harbinger of a division.

  The Committee suspended from 4.43 pm to 4.55 pm for a division in the House

Mr Pound

  291. In the summer of 1988, I was a housing officer for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and we used to receive a great many applications, under the then Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1985, Part 3, Section 64, Housing the Homeless, from people from Northern Ireland, who said that they were the victims of intimidation and were seeking housing in the rest of the United Kingdom. Some of us, reluctantly, had to go and visit the North of Ireland, for extended, investigative journeys, and we usually found, in fact, that it was a result of neo-vigilantes and related to crime, rather than any form of sectarian or inter-group feuding. There was no agency, at the time, which in any way co-ordinated advice or assistance to these people when they were relocated, as inevitably they were, in London. Does one exist now; is there one that you are aware of?
  (Mr Leach) An agency in London?

  292. Anywhere in England, Scotland or Wales?
  (Mr Leach) No, I am not aware that there is. There is the Base 2 organisation, which is a NIACRO project, and of which you had details, I think, and they would have links with voluntary and perhaps statutory organisations and agencies in England and Wales and Scotland. But I am not aware that there is a co-ordinating body with which they deal.

  293. Bearing in mind the element of dislocation, both physical and emotional, which inevitably would attach itself to such people, do you think it would help if there were such an agency to co-ordinate advice and assistance? I am not asking you for it to come from your budget.
  (Mr Leach) I think the increasing effort of the system actually should be to deal with the causes of the problem. If an individual is under threat because of alleged or perceived criminal activity, then I think there should be attempts to address that through interventions in Northern Ireland, to obviate any relocation; and that is, for example, the approach which the Probation Board would take now.

  294. That is an entirely proper answer, in the realm of theory, but, just following up from Tony Clarke's question earlier, there is also the practical element. I see that Mr Stevenson represents the Victims Liaison Unit, is there any role for the Victims Liaison Unit in such cases?
  (Mr Stevenson) The remit of the Unit does not extend beyond Northern Ireland, but we do have an interest and we will speak to people, at Maranatha, for example, to get an idea of what is going on. And I think it is fair to say that the responsibility for this work lies with the local authorities and agencies within GB, and that there is not an overarching strategy in place which would provide a consistent form of support in that. Probably, the services are quite different, varying across the country. So I think probably there is not an agency; whether there should be one, or not, is perhaps something that the agencies in GB would have a view on, as to whether they think it would be helpful, they are dealing with the issue probably daily.

Dr Palmer

  295. In seeking to assist persons who are subject to intimidation, what regard do public authorities have to their duty, under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, to promote equality of opportunity, and is there not a degree of tension between the statutory obligation, in that cause, and the wish of many people to be relocated near to their own, near to others of a similar viewpoint?
  (Mr Leach) The section 75 duty is designed to ensure that public authorities, as I understand it, in their policies and actions, do not have a sort of unequal impact on different sides of the community and a number of other categories, or, where there is such an impact, to ensure that it is justified. In the case of relocation, if there is an unequal impact, it is being caused by the illegal acts of paramilitaries, and I think it would be paradoxical if statutory agencies were constrained as a result of section 75 from offering appropriate emergency assistance to people who were in need. So I would not actually see a conflict, no.

  296. I think I agree with you, that it would be paradoxical; my question is, basically, whether you feel that Section 75 requires clarification, or if you feel comfortable with it, even in this context?
  (Mr Leach) I should preface by saying that most of the actions that would be taken by statutory agencies would be statutory agencies which are the responsibility of the devolved administration, so I could not speak directly for them, but I would not have thought, myself, that they would have a problem there, because there is a clear case, and, for example, the Housing Executive has a statutory authority to respond to people in housing need, and therefore I believe they would be safe.

Mr Beggs

  297. The recent loyalist feud led to substantial rehousing and substantial public expenditure both on rehousing and on repairing damage to vacated premises; presumably, people were rehoused in more sympathetic areas. Is there not a risk that public authorities, in effect, are assisting paramilitaries in achieving their objectives of segregating the community?
  (Mr Leach) I think, at one level, there is a tension there. Helping those who have been intimidated out of their houses could be seen as indirectly facilitating the purpose that the paramilitaries were aiming at. Nonetheless, I think, for an agency which has a statutory duty to respond to need, as the Housing Executive does, and, sorry, I should say again that I am speaking, in a sense, personally, because the Executive is the responsibility of the devolved administration, and therefore we cannot speak for it, I would have thought that they would regard their statutory duty, subject to any other statutory provision that was made, as the thing that should guide them in assisting people who were intimidated out of their houses.

  298. What steps can be taken to seek to improve detection rates and prosecution rates in areas where paramilitary intimidation is rife and residents are reluctant to co-operate with the police? And are the reforms in the Police Service likely to increase success in reducing intimidation?
  (Miss O'Mara) In terms of what can be done, I think we share what I suspect is an underlying concern of this Committee, and it is certainly a concern of our Ministers, at the low level of arrests and then convictions. I know the police are taking this very seriously, they are doing various things; they have installed closed-circuit television, in some areas; in some housing areas, particularly, I think, in Larne, they have done that. They have increased stop and search, hoping to detect people that way. They have been undertaking a number of covert operations, to the same end. But moving on to the second point that I think you were making about the sort of structural reforms in the RUC, I think certainly we do see that as a very fruitful area, in due course, in a number of ways. Partly, I think, in its very nature, coming out of the Patten recommendations for community policing, as these take effect, with the stress very much on policing rather than on the police—this is a co-operative effort, this is not just looking for action from the police, it is looking for partnership with the local communities, and it is also looking to involve a range of statutory agencies across the board. And if people can have confidence in that and can actually see increasingly the Police Service as one in which they themselves have a stake, then we believe that, over time, this will change the culture, because a lot of it is, I think, a cultural, deep-seated problem. And, obviously, the other changes that are coming with it, the changes in the composition of the police force, again being designed to encourage greater community ownership, across the community, of law enforcement; what really we are wanting people to do is to have confidence in the law enforcement that is going on through the statutory agencies. And, equally, I think, also even in the reorganisation that is coming about from the beginning of April, when the Police Service will be divided into 29 district command units, as you know; those are going to be smaller, the Police Service will be delayered, it will be closer to the people, there will be more local accountability, all these things we hope will just encourage the community increasingly to feel part of what is going on, to co-operate more. But it is a long-term problem.

Mr McCabe

  299. You mentioned the Organised Crime Task Force in your opening remarks, and the role it will play in trying to tackle some of the criminal activity that seems to underpin quite a lot of this intimidation. I wonder, are you in a position to say anything more about the scope of its activities and what we might expect to see from this Task Force?
  (Miss O'Mara) Yes, I can give some sort of indication of how we see it developing. It was created, as you know, in October, so it is really just getting under way, but we have had a number of meetings, under Mr Ingram, chairing; we have seen it going forward in a number of respects. First of all, analysing what the scope of the problem is; the police have done a lot of work in this area already, looking partly to see the whole range of organised criminal activity that is taking place, both in the private sector and in the public sector. They have been going out, doing surveys, trying to get information back, just to see what the scale of the problem is. I think this is very much as you were talking about in terms of intimidation, that we think, actually, it is almost like an iceberg and people really do not realise just how big these things are. So they are doing that. Now we have not come to a conclusion on that. What we want to do, having got that information, is to be able to see the sorts of strategic areas on which we should be fixing; it is quite easy probably now even to think of things like fuel smuggling, these are big things, there are counterfeit goods, obviously—tobacco smuggling is another big area. We have a number of sub-groups, this is not to make it too bureaucratic, but really just to get people together, in a way which had not been happening before, I think, across the board, so we are trying to see what better co-ordination we can achieve. We also have, in a separate area, discussions with the Republic, and we want to see if there are things that we can do there to increase co-operation that will make it even more difficult for this kind of racketeering to go on. We are looking at the law, to see whether there are changes in the law that can be made. One big area where we are already making some progress is that the Performance and Innovation Unit in the Cabinet Office did a study and recommended the creation of a National Confiscation Agency, which would take in the proceeds, and Stephen would happily speak a bit more about that, but that is going forward in the Proceeds of Crime Bill, and we are thinking about how that could be done in Northern Ireland. And, in many ways, I think, we feel that Northern Ireland is ripe for this, because we are small, we have links, obviously, with the devolved administration, there is a lot of public sector activity there, and what we want to do is encourage action against criminal activity; thus obviously, this is not something that operationally we are responsible for, but the more that we can actually share information and see what can be done across the board, we can tackle this. Now all this is being done for organised crime, it is not just against paramilitaries, obviously, but, clearly, to the extent that paramilitary activity is going on in this area, it is a good way of tackling it.

1   The Northern Ireland Office has confirmed that the figures referred to by Miss O'Mara are for households-whether families or single occupiers. It comments that it is possible, although unlikely, that an individual from a household could apply for re-housing because of intimidation and the other members of the household remain behind. It is also possible that, at a future date, another member of the household could apply for re-housing and would be considered as a separate case and household. The Housing Executive is not aware of any such situation having arisen. Back

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