A new commission to monitor paramilitary activity in the North of Ireland for the purpose of punishing associated political parties began work today.
The Independent Monitoring Commission was proposed by the Irish and British governments last May as part of a Joint Declaration on the implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The governments introduced the sanctions body as a means of placating unionists who had sought a device for the exclusion of Sinn Féin from positions of influence in the power-sharing administration at Stormont.
Today's move to set up the IMC has incensed republicans as it marks a sharp departure from the Agreement ahead of a major review of the peace deal. The body is widely seen as a means of removing Sinn Féin from the democratic process following its recent election success.
Nevertheless, the British government today claimed the body would ``boost confidence'' in the Agreement.
The four-member body was welcomed when it came into operation at lunchtime today by Britain's governor in Ireland, Paul Murphy. He said: ``It will play an important part in helping to provide assurance to the people of Northern Ireland that the necessary moves towards a genuinely peaceful and democratic society and stable democratic government are real and permanent.''
The local political institutions were suspended by the British government fifteen months ago due to the resignation as First Minister of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble. An agreement on IRA arms decommissioning to facilitate Trimble's return suddenly collapsed in October, after the UUP leader refused to accept a verification of the IRA's actions by the IICD international decommissioning body.
The two governments subsequently reneged on their commitment to implement the Joint Declaration.
Sinn Féin has described the IMC as running ``totally contrary to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement''.
SF Assembly group leader Conor Murphy said it was ``ironic'' that the only aspect of the Joint Declaration which the two governments have advanced upon is the IMC.
``They have repeatedly failed to implement their commitments on policing, demilitarisation, human rights and equality, all of which are within the terms of the Agreement.''
He said rhe powers of exclusion which were now being granted to the British Secretary of State ``contradict democratic norms'' and contravened the rights of the electorate.
``Indeed the British Secretary of State who has been given these powers is himself in breach of the Agreement by virtue of his refusal to lift the suspension of the political institutions.
``Successive British Secretaries of State have suspended the Assembly on four occasions, at the behest of unionism. Nobody should be in any doubt that the additional powers given to the British Secretary of State will be used similarly.
Murphy pointed out that IMC reports would be based on information supplied by securocrats -- elements of the British security forces bitterly opposed to the cause of Irish nationalism.
``The IMC will be no more than a smokescreen to validate arbitrary acts of exclusion by the Secretary of State,'' he said.
The Commission members are John Grieve, the former head of the anti-terrorist squad in London; Richard Kerr, a former deputy director of the CIA in the US; retired Irish civil servant Mr Joe Brosnan; and former Belfast Assembly Speaker Lord Alderdice.