David Ford's fears over crime in Northern Ireland as FBI-style agency snubbed
Failure to accept an FBI-style crime-fighting agency is bad news for Northern Ireland and leaves organised criminals free to exploit security gaps, the Justice Minister has warned.
David Ford said efforts to tackle child exploitation, cyber crime, asset recovery and drugs trafficking were severely curtailed because the new National Crime Agency (NCA) was not fully operational in the region.
Venting frustration at political opposition to the NCA, which assumed its powers yesterday, Mr Ford claimed Northern Ireland was now viewed as the UK's poor cousin when it comes to dealing with serious organised crime.
As well as replacing the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), the new body incorporates the work of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) and the national cyber crime unit. It will target major crime gangs operating over local, national and international borders.
But in Northern Ireland, its powers have been restricted to non-devolved matters such as immigration.
One of the major concerns is that the region could now become an attractive location for organised criminals looking to hide their assets or proceeds of crimes. Mr Ford added: "At the moment Soca is largely responsible for the seizing of assets but there will be nobody with those powers in Northern Ireland as from today.
"My big fear is that we send out the wrong message that we are not fighting organised crime as effectively as other parts of the UK and we lose the UK national and international connections that NCA will have."
Sinn Fein and the SDLP blocked a move to give the NCA full powers over fears it could lead to a parallel police force unaccountable to the Northern Ireland Policing Board.
However, the minister insisted he has worked hard with the Home Office to secure stringent accountability mechanisms, including a guarantee that the NCA would be answerable to the PSNI chief constable.
Shadow policing minister and former NIO minister David Hanson said because the NCA could not operate in Northern Ireland, it left "a serious operational gap compared to the Serious Organised Crime Agency that it replaced".
The PSNI, which is already under extreme budgetary and resourcing pressures because of ongoing flag and parade-related disputes is facing further strain because the work of the NCA has been restricted.
Mr Ford said senior police officers had aired concerns at not being able to avail themselves of UK-wide resources.
He added that he had not given up hope of achieving political consensus on the NCA in the future.
More than 4,000 NCA officers will tackle crime under four commands: organised crime, economic crime, border policing and child exploitation and online protection, alongside a National Cyber Crime Unit.
It has an annual budget of £463m for resources and £31m for capital.
The NCA will run the country's first national intelligence hub and place officers overseas.