Over the past six weeks, Northern Ireland’s Executive has not operated properly, even by its own fitful standards. After revelations that IRA members were involved in a murder in Belfast, and the subsequent resignation of the Ulster Unionists’ only minister, the Democratic Unionists devised a bizarre ‘go slow’ to prove that it was not ‘business as usual’ at Stormont.
Almost all the DUP's ministers, including the party’s leader and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, resigned from the Executive. However, finance minister, Arlene Foster, was nominated to replace Mr Robinson in a temporary capacity, supposedly to prevent nationalist parties from running amok in government. Meanwhile, the party’s remaining three ministers, whose portfolios include health, enterprise and social development, were continually re-nominated to their positions, from which they then resigned again, on a weekly basis.
Confusing? Absolutely. Inexplicable? Pretty much.
After weeks of manoeuvres, recriminations and choreography, it became clear that the DUP’s permanent return to the Executive hinged on the contents of a report into paramilitary activity, commissioned by the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers. Peter Robinson indicated he needed this document, authored by the PSNI and MI5, to confirm the chief constable’s claim that the leadership of the IRA no longer sanctions terrorist attacks or criminality.
Given that the chief constable is the PSNI’s top officer, it was always glaringly obvious that the report’s assessment was unlikely to differ substantially from his own. Nevertheless, Northern Ireland’s political class awaited its publication eagerly.
Now, after a short delay, their wait is over (PDF). In the House of Commons this afternoon, Theresa Villiers announced the document’s publication. Predictably, it contained few surprises.
This ‘assessment’ of paramilitary activity concludes that most of the main paramilitary groups which operated during the Troubles are still in existence. However, it says none of the organisations are "planning or conducting terrorist attacks". Members of the paramilitary groups continue to be involved in violence and crime, but their central leaderships, for the most part, seek to temper, rather than direct, these activities.
The section on the Provisional IRA will command closest attention, understandably. The authors acknowledge that the organisation’s structures, including its ‘Army Council’, still exist, “in much reduced form”. They believe that local or individual activity takes place “without the knowledge or direction of the leadership”. The PIRA continues to gather intelligence, it retains “some weapons” and individual members are suspected of crimes, up to and including murder.
None of this information is new or surprising. However, the document contained more than enough ambiguity to allow the DUP to justify any decision it took.
Peter Robinson announced that his ministers will resume their full-time duties this afternoon. Given that this report adds little to the chief constable’s assessment of IRA activity, from late August, the public will ask why they were subjected to a month and a half of deserted Assembly debates and a 'ghost Executive’.