Watchdog slammed over 'soft line on UVF killing'

A Government watchdog that blamed the leadership of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) for a killing in Northern Ireland was criticised today for failing to order sanctions against the group.

Bobby Moffett, 43, was gunned down in front of shoppers in Belfast in May in a shooting that was widely blamed on members of the UVF, despite it being on ceasefire.

The Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) has now confirmed the group's leadership sanctioned the killing, but the watchdog that monitors paramilitary activity advised government not to take action against the UVF at this time.

The UVF, which killed more than 500 people during the Troubles, is on a long-term ceasefire and had decommissioned weapons and supposedly renounced violence before the killing.

The IMC said Mr Moffett, a former prisoner with loyalist links, was involved in a dispute with UVF leaders.

"From this analysis, and from our extensive enquiries, we conclude that: the murder was committed by members of the UVF acting as such; these members had sanction at central leadership level," the IMC report said.

It added: "There were two main reasons for the murder and the way in which it was committed: to stop Mr Moffett's perceived flouting of UVF authority, and to send a message to the organisation and the community that this authority was not to be challenged.

"Senior leadership in the UVF could have prevented the murder had it determined to do so."

The IMC stopped short of advising government to impose legal sanctions on the UVF, and explained: "The murder does not blind us to the progress the UVF has made hitherto, or of itself mean that the process will be reversed."

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie said: "The fact that the IMC do not recommend to the Secretary of State that the UVF's ceasefire should be recategorised sends out very worrying signals.

"It begs the question: what actually does constitute a breach of ceasefire by the UVF?"

Northern Ireland Justice Minister David Ford described the statement as "worrying".

"I think it calls into question the behaviour of that organisation," he said of the UVF.

"That organisation now needs to make clear that the statement of three years ago is genuine."

Sinn Fein MLA Paul Maskey said the murder was a tragedy for the Moffett family, but he said the IMC report simply confirmed what the public knew already. He said the IMC should be abolished.

"At a political level, this report highlights the fact that the IMC as a body serves little purpose and is a waste of time, money and effort," he said.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Sir Reg Empey described the report as "extremely disturbing".

He said it called paramilitary ceasefires into question, and he added: "Giving a 'bye-ball' to an organisation that is supposed to be on ceasefire in hopes that it is a 'one-off' carries very severe risks, of which the IMC must be fully aware."

The Commission report said that in 2007 the UVF had pledged to become a civilian organisation, but when its authority was challenged "the organisation reverted to physical force".

The political fallout from the murder sparked the resignation of the then-leader of the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) Dawn Purvis.

She is the most high profile loyalist politician and was the PUP's sole representative at the Northern Ireland Assembly before opting to cut ties with the party.

The killing was condemned today by Northern Ireland Secretary of State Owen Paterson.

In a statement, he said: "The murder of Mr Moffett was brutal and shocking.

"The conclusions of the IMC in respect of the behaviour of the UVF leadership are a challenge to the UVF leadership to renew their determination to deliver fully on their collective commitment to transform their organisation."