Efforts by Sinn Fein and the SDLP to block plans for a UK-wide FBI-style body to fight organised crime in Northern Ireland will harm the fight against child exploitation and the drugs trade, it was claimed.
Time is rapidly running out to resolve the problem before legislation is passed at Westminster.
Nationalist parties see the new body as having the potential to compromise accountability mechanisms such as the Policing Board.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) will take on most of the functions of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) and some from the UK Borders Agency.
Soca already has an office here but that will close later in the year unless issues are resolved.
Lord Empey, who has been scrutinising the UK legislation in the House of Lords, warned that opting out of the new structure “could leave us a soft underbelly for organised crime — a weak spot”. He added: “We could become a blank on the map between the Republic, which is operating its own processes, and the UK doing the same,” he said.
At last Thursday’s Executive meeting, Justice Minister David Ford proposed including Northern Ireland in the UK legislation via a device known as a legislative consent motion. This has been used in other areas, such as welfare reform, to ensure a seamless transition from one system to the next, and the device is being used in Scotland.
In return, Mr Ford had secured a number of concessions from the Home Secretary to preserve accountability here. He ensured that the head of the agency would sometimes appear before the Policing Board and would not have policing powers, as he does in the rest of the UK.
This would mean that the PSNI would carry out functions, like arrests, on behalf of the agency.
Mr Ford warned ministers that they have until early March at the latest to act. It has been under discussion since 2011 and the legislation, the Crime and Courts Bill, is progressing through Westminster.
In a memo, Mr Ford disclosed that senior PSNI officers were worried that not to have the NCA expertise on tap would harm the battle against international criminal conspiracies and child exploitation.
He stated that being excluded would “create a major gap in our armour which would in my view have serious consequences in a range of areas from the effectiveness of the fight against human trafficking to the ability to counter drug and cigarette smuggling and other criminal operations”.
Mr Ford added that it would put additional strain on the PSNI “who would somehow have to cover the operational gap left” and said “this would be an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction”.
There is also the possibility of the NCA’s remit being extended to include international counter-terrorism, including al-Qaida.
On Monday night Jim Allister of the TUV pointed the finger at Sinn Fein saying that the party’s “anti-British agenda is facilitating criminality and the perverted provision of a Sinn Fein veto in Stormont allows it to succeed”.
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The UK-wide Serious Organised Crime Agency is to be wound up this year. Since 2011 there have been plans to replace it with the National Crime Agency. The aim is that “capabilities, expertise, assets and intelligence will be shared across the new agency”. Northern Ireland must opt into the agency or make its own arrangements.