Belfast Telegraph

Hopes of National Crime Agency breakthrough as SDLP signals change in stance

By Deborah McAleese

The political stalemate over the future of the National Crime Agency could soon be broken, clearing the way for the gangster-fighting body to operate in Northern Ireland.

The SDLP has signalled a shift in support for the FBI-style unit carrying out serious crime operations in the province.

Since the NCA took over from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) in October 2013, the PSNI has had to take responsibility for the agency's Northern Ireland probes after nationalist politicians blocked it from operating here due to concerns over accountability.

For more than a year the PSNI has been pouring resources into major organised crime investigations that everywhere else in the UK are handled by the NCA.

However, the SDLP's Dolores Kelly has revealed that the party is close to reaching an agreement over the operation of the agency here.

"We are very conscious of the difference the NCA could make to tackling organised criminality," the Policing Board member said.

She added: "We are still in negotiations over this and are trying to move forward. We are coming to a better understanding in terms of the accountability mechanisms and we are heading in the right direction. We are pleased with the assurances we have been given."

DUP Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said the issue needed to be resolved urgently, adding: "I am very pleased to hear the SDLP has indicted a possible breakthrough to this. This is a matter of urgency. Resources for the PSNI are stretched, resources around serious crime are stretched, we have no civil assets recovery powers that would help dismantle these crime gangs. We have to get this sorted."

A number of revised plans have been drawn up to try and reassure nationalists over accountability.

These include an arrangement whereby the head of the NCA would be compelled to appear before the Policing Board, the NCA would not operate here without the authority of the PSNI Chief Constable, and NCA officers would be accountable to the Policing Board.

The NCA, described as the UK's FBI, was created to lead the fight to cut serious and organised crime, including economic crime, cyber crime and child sex abuse.

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