National Crime Agency will become an election issue as Sinn Fein make capital out of SDLP support
For almost two years as politicians bickered it was left to the PSNI to investigate international drug trafficking, child exploitation, money laundering and human trafficking amid other offences crossing national and international boundaries.
Take one example. In just one week, as this newspaper revealed, experienced detectives were taken off other work to spend 400 man hours disrupting an African drug gang aiming to flood the province with narcotics.
That should have been the job of the National Crime Agency, but apart from its border and customs functions it was not permitted to fully operate here because of objections by nationalist politicians.
Unease within nationalism over the National Crime Agency operating in Northern Ireland is no doubt about to become an issue in the forthcoming Westminster and Assembly elections.
Sinn Fein will continue to make capital out of the SDLP’s decision to drop its opposition to the NCA, having secured significant accountability mechanisms.
The memory of the so-called ‘spooks’, ‘securo-crats’ and secret service runs long and deep in the nationalist community.
And the unfettered praise of the SDLP by unionists like the DUP’s Paul Girvan, Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott and TUV leader Jim Allister yesterday can only have made their shift more fraught.
To that extent, the SDLP deserves credit for changing its approach after two separate, full debates in the Assembly over the last 18 months.
Whether the accountability mechanisms work in practice only time will tell.
But there is no doubt the level of accountability is higher than that which other chief constables across the UK enjoy in relation to the NCA.
It’s director general Keith Bristow can be summoned to appear before the Policing Board in relation to investigations in Northern Ireland if not non-devolved matters - where SF members and others can scutinize their actions.
In addition PSNI chief constable George Hamilton appears to have powers to veto operations by the NCA in NI also.
The NCA will also be subject to the same code of ethics that applies to the PSNI and the police ombudsman will also have full power to investigate the agency.
Chief SDLP negotiator Alex Attwood told the Belfast Telegraph: “The SDLP has a proven judgment on policing matters and building accountable policing structures.
“The continuing freedom that fuel launderers have to create environmental damage and build their criminal assets is intolerable. The fact that the biggest illegal waste dump ever found on these islands netted £50million for organised crime is unacceptable.
“The threat of organised crime on the island is not receding. It needs to be confronted more and more.”