A move to allow some of the biggest smugglers along the border to make huge financial settlements to the Revenue Commissioners and dismantle their crime empires has been vetoed by the Home Office.
Settlement payments of between £3m-£5m were discussed in secret negotiations between an intermediary based in South Armagh and senior officials from the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
Solicitors for one crime family held discussions with representatives of SOCA in recent months to estimate liabilities incurred by their clients and the assets that would be seized in any settlement with the Revenue Commissioners.
But the intermediary, a churchman, was told last week by a senior SOCA figure that the Home Office would not endorse the proposals.
Pastor Barry Halliday, who began the dialogue with the crime families in 2006 says he is deeply disappointed that the plan is off.
“I regret that an opportunity has been lost to reverse years of criminality and division in this area. This was an opportunity to bring two extremes, two foes together, and dismantle huge crime structures in south Armagh. It will prove very costly for SOCA to achieve the same results through the courts”, the Bessbrook Pastor said.
If the proposals had been adopted the Pastor is convinced that it would have led to a series of payments and the voluntary surrendering of assets to Revenue and Customs amounting to between £50m and £100m from around 20 major crime gangs.
One smuggling gang which is controlled by a family from the Keady area of south Armagh was put forward as a test case. It’s understood the three key men in the gang, three brothers, were prepared to pay around £3.5m to Customs and Revenue mainly through the sale of assets and wind up their criminal operations and in return they wouldn’t face criminal charges or the sequestration of their property.
Pastor Halliday met the SOCA officials in the Stormont office of Junior Minister Jeffrey Donaldson last summer.
But it’s now suspected that Home Secretary Jacqui Smith was cautioned by aides that the agreement would pose huge risks, especially if some of the gangs reneged.
Victims campaigner Willie Frazer, who was aware of the initiative agreed to stay out of south Armagh over the last two years as a condition of the negotiations because he believed it could rid the area of the smuggling gangs.
“I was in these guys’ faces to such a degree that they did genuinely consider paying up and going away. SOCA was fully briefed about what they were prepared to do and appeared to be on board for the full journey, but the plug has been pulled on it and I understand that the message is that they will be pursued through the courts”, he said.