Belfast Telegraph

Gangs lining their pockets as row over UK task force turns Ulster into a hotbed of criminality

By Deborah McAleese

Police attempts to bring down a dangerous loyalist paramilitary gang have been stopped by the prevention of the National Crime Agency from operating in Northern Ireland, the chief constable has revealed.

Local, national and international investigations into organised crime gangs involved in drugs, firearms and money laundering have also been impeded by the NCA's inability to operate in the region.

The assets of the gangs operating in Northern Ireland cannot be seized because the NCA is the only agency able to perform civil recovery. This lack of powers is making it much more difficult to shut down criminal networks.

Described as the UK's FBI, the UK-wide crime task force was blocked from operating in Northern Ireland by the SDLP and Sinn Fein because they want policing powers to be retained here.

The Belfast Telegraph understands that the future role of the NCA in Northern Ireland is to be scheduled as part of the forthcoming all-party talk negotiations following a request by UUP leader Mike Nesbitt to Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.

"The lack of the NCA operating at full power in Northern Ireland is very bad for our society. The chief constable has pointed out the budget strain he is under. Why should he have to find the resources to do the NCA's work for them?" said Mr Nesbitt.

And Policing Board member Jonathan Craig claimed that more criminal gangs were moving their operations to Northern Ireland "because their assets are safe here".

As the political stalemate over the agency's role in Northern Ireland continues, Chief Constable George Hamilton has warned the Northern Ireland Policing Board that the PSNI does not have the resource capacity to tackle serious and organised crime investigations, or child sexual exploitation probes, without the expertise of the NCA.

In a written briefing to the board, Mr Hamilton outlined a number of serious crime investigations that have been frustrated including:

  • A loyalist paramilitary group involved in wide-ranging criminality continues to operate because the NCA is unable to provide expert assistance to the PSNI as part of a complex money-laundering investigation. In addition, the gang's assets cannot be seized.
  • A national investigation into an organised crime gang importing and distributing drugs into the UK and Northern Ireland was impacted because the NCA was unable to conduct a post-arrest search of a suspect's home in Northern Ireland.
  • A major national and international investigation into an organised crime gang involved in importing firearms and drugs into the UK – with one of the main facilitators based in Northern Ireland – has been hindered due to the lack of NCA powers in the region.
  • A PSNI organised crime branch investigation into an international crime gang involved in money laundering using store gift cards has been hampered because NCA is unable to assist.
  • Because of the NCA's lack of powers here the PSNI had to invest "significant operational support" to the agency as part of an operation relating to the postal importation of cocaine to Belfast by a foreign national crime gang.

Mr Hamilton warned that the absence of a legislative consent motion permitting the NCA to operate here has created a "significantly reduced capability" to tackle serious and organised crime in Northern Ireland.

He added: "We are experiencing an increased level of international crime yet the agency set up to provide that international reach is unable to operate inside Northern Ireland and unfortunately... (that) means that they are legally unable to support the PSNI effort to frustrate, disrupt and dismantle organised crime groups.

"In essence, Northern Ireland does not have access to the same level of resources and expertise in relation to serious and organised crime investigations as the rest of the UK and PSNI does not have the resource capacity to fill this void."

SDLP Policing Board member Dolores Kelly said that her party wanted to "get to a point where the NCA can operate in Northern Ireland but under proper accountability mechanisms".

She added that there had not been "any great crisis" due to the NCA not operating in Northern Ireland.

Ms Kelly added that the SDLP would be meeting the chief constable next week to discuss new proposals put forward earlier this month by Justice Minister David Ford to allay some of the concerns raised by the SDLP.

"It is a work in progress. I think some of the changes the minister has made are in the right direction. People need to be mindful that the accountability mechanisms for policing have enabled police to enjoy such a high level of confidence and we are not prepared to put that at risk," Ms Kelly added.

DUP Policing Board member Jonathan Craig warned that the situation had "passed the point of critical" because of the lack of civil recovery powers available.

"That is sending out the wrong message altogether to the criminal fraternity," he said.

"You are telling them 'hey, there's a loophole which says if you're a criminal gang using your base in Northern Ireland nobody can get your assets.' The situation is just not acceptable," the DUP man added.

Background

There are between 140 and 160 organised crime groups active in Northern Ireland dealing in sexual exploitation, human trafficking, drugs, firearms and money laundering. International crime gangs from China, Eastern Europe and Africa are increasingly targeting the region. The National Crime Agency, the UK-wide crime task force that tackles serious organised crime, is unable to operate in Northern Ireland because of political opposition. This is heaping additional pressure on an already overstretched PSNI.

Six cases the NCA could have solved

1. Following the seizure of a lorry in Britain containing cocaine and heroin, the NCA needed to conduct a post-arrest search of the driver's home in Northern Ireland. As NCA officers did not have the requisite powers, they were unable to carry out this search and required the assistance of the PSNI. Due to other operational policing commitments there was a significant time delay which impacted on the delivery in this operation.

2. The NCA has been investigating an organised crime gang involved in importing firearms and controlled drugs into the UK on a regular basis. One of the key facilitators is based in Northern Ireland and the national and international investigation being conducted by the NCA to reduce the threat to UK citizens, including Northern Ireland, has been frustrated by its lack of policing powers in Northern Ireland. NCA officers have had to call upon the PSNI for assistance.

3. As part of a PSNI investigation into wide-ranging criminality linked to a loyalist paramilitary group, the PSNI sought the assistance of a financial investigator from the NCA in respect of a complex money-laundering investigation. However, the NCA had no powers to assist. The PSNI would have liked to have seized the gang's assets through civil recovery to frustrate their ability to continue their criminal activities. But this cannot be taken forward as no agency can perform civil recovery in Northern Ireland.

4. The PSNI's Organised Crime Branch launched an investigation into a crime gang involved in money laundering using store gift cards. The PSNI sought financial investigator assistance from the NCA. However, the NCA was unable to assist and cannot exercise powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

5. A National Crime Agency operation relating to the postal importation of over 2kg of uncut, high-purity cocaine to Belfast by a national crime gang was hampered by its lack of powers. Due to being unable to operate in Northern Ireland, the NCA required significant operational support from the PSNI in relation to tactics used to identify the crime gang and then in subsequent searches, arrests, interviews and charging.

6. A probe into a massive illegal dump was hampered by the lack of civil recovery powers. The clean-up bill for the illegal waste, which was buried in old sand and gravel excavation pits near Londonderry, cost the public purse £800,000. It was estimated that organised criminal gangs had earned £50m from the dump.

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