More rogue fuel plants shut in Northern Ireland, but no one jailed in 12 years
Customs officials are busting an illicit fuel plant every 10 days in Northern Ireland.
The number of dismantled sites has trebled in the past decade, indicating the growing scale of the criminals' laundering empire.
Profits from laundered fuel have helped to bankroll the IRA and Real IRA.
Yet, despite the underground industry filling terrorists' coffers and costing our economy tens of millions a year, no-one has been jailed over fuel fraud since 2002.
It has led to claims that a blind eye is being turned for reasons of political expediency.
Paul Givan, who chairs the Assembly's justice committee, said: "People are asking, is this the price of keeping republicans bought off for the sake of the peace process?"
According to figures released by Justice Minister David Ford, 203 fuel laundering plants have been raided in the past decade.
In the 12 months to April this year, 38 plants were dismantled - a three-fold increase on the 2003/04 total.
Many of the raids have taken place in south Armagh, where the proximity to the border makes it an attractive route for criminals.
Earlier this month, officials smashed an "industrial scale" plant near Crossmaglen which was capable of producing 30m litres of illicit fuel a year.
Despite the growing number of raids, few result in arrests or prosecutions.
In the rest of the UK, more than half of cases which come before the courts result in jail sentences.
Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) believes fuel fraud is taking up to £80million a year out of the local economy.
Profits from laundering have also helped bankroll the IRA's terror campaign, and it is now feared cash is boosting the coffers of dissidents. At the weekend, a report claimed the Real IRA was the ninth richest terror group in the world.
The lack of prosecutions has led some to believe that fuel launderers are tipped off ahead of raids.
Last year it was claimed that former IRA chief of staff Thomas 'Slab' Murphy heard about a police raid on his south Armagh bolthole four hours before it happened.
Blazing fires were spotted around the farm as files and computer equipment were destroyed long before police arrived.
Mr Givan queried why so few raids result in prosecutions.
"It is unbelievable how raids are taking place - one every 10 days - plants are being dismantled, and yet nobody ever seems to get caught," he added.
"If it was any other crime, there would be outrage, so why is it that fuel smugglers seem to be immune to justice?"
His concerns were echoed by Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy, whose Newry and Armagh constituency is a fuel laundering hotspot.
"Many people within my constituency remain deeply suspicious that certain individuals are not being pursued for crimes in relation to this issue for reasons of political expediency," he said.
Pat Curtis from HMRC said the lack of jail sentences was a frustration, however, he said it was a matter for the judiciary.
"We have arrested a number of individuals in connection with alleged fuel laundering, and we continue to disrupt the trade," he said.
"In the last year we dismantled 38 laundering plants.
"Sentencing is a matter for the judiciary. HMRC and the enforcement agencies refer the cases to the PPS for prosecution.
"I would say that 56% of cases forwarded on the mainland for similar offences end up with custodial sentences."
Shut down... plant at Forkhill, November 2014
The south Armagh landscape was on the brink of an environmental disaster after 50 tonnes of sludge produced as part of the laundering process was found in a farm shed. The fuel plant responsible for the sludge was capable of turning out 20m litres every year, resulting in £12.5m in lost taxes. As well as the toxic waste, 2,000 litres of illicit diesel, pumps and equipment were recovered in the swoop.
Shut down... plant at Crossmaglen, March 2011
A plant was producing enough laundered fuel to transport a car to the moon and back 40 times a year. The operation, one of the largest ever uncovered, was described as fraud on an industrial scale. It was capable of producing over 30m litres of illicit fuel a year, the equivalent of £20m in lost revenue. Six storage tanks were seized, as well as 37,000 litres of illegal fuel and 1,000 litres of acid.
Shut down... plant near Crossmaglen, Dec 2013
The most sophisticated fuel laundering plant ever found in Northern Ireland was shut down on the same day new laws aimed at jailing fraudsters took effect. The complex plant, capable of pumping out 16m litres of fuel each year, was discovered outside Crossmaglen. Around 73,000 litres of fuel were removed from huge tanks. Customs officials said the plant's output resulted in a loss of £10m in tax revenue.
Shut down... plant at Cullyhanna, March 2013
A plant producing more than 1.5 tonnes of toxic waste on a working cattle farm was found hidden behind hay bales. The operation was capable of churning out 1.8m litres of illicit diesel a year. Smugglers used slurry tankers to launder and transport fuel, evading £1.2m in taxes a year. Officers from HMRC dismantled the plant and seized the two slurry tankers as well as 2,800 litres of illicit fuel.
Shut down... plants at Cullaville, February 2014
Over 50 tonnes of toxic waste were removed after three fuel laundering plants were found within a small rural area. Between them, the three plants had the potential to produce 26m litres of illicit fuel a year, evading £18m in revenue. Two of the laundering plants were uncovered by police and Customs officials at domestic premises, while a third was found hidden in a nearby agricultural shed.