Belfast Telegraph

Bring fuel launderers to book

Editor's Viewpoint

Customs and police deserve praise for the record number of illegal fuel laundering plants uncovered in the province in the 12 months up to last April. A total of 38 plants were closed down, bringing the total in the last decade to more than 200.

That shows the extent of the problem facing the authorities. And the upward trend in closures is either an indication of the increased efficiency of police and Customs or suggests that the number of illegal plants is growing.

While many motorists may be tempted to use relatively cheap laundered fuel in their vehicles it is a false economy, as the substances used to remove the red dye in the diesel can cause severe damage to engines.

There are even more costly consequences for society in general. The laundering process produces a large amount of toxic waste which is dumped by the criminals operating the plants, without any thought to the effect on the environment.

Cleaning up the waste from just one plant can cost tens of thousands of pounds and, when this is added to the loss in tax revenue, it produces a very hefty loss to the public purse at a time when services are already under severe strain.

However, the most insidious consequence of this illegal activity is that a significant amount of the money raised by the launderers is believed to flow into the coffers of republican terrorist organisations.

Some estimates suggest that up to £80m is lost to the local economy because of fuel laundering. Even if the terrorist groups only get a fraction of that, the cash could greatly increase their murderous capacity by allowing them to build up their deadly arsenals.

A report at the weekend claimed the Real IRA - one of the gangs suspected of benefiting from fuel laundering - is the ninth richest terrorist organisation in the world.

Given the far-reaching consequences of fuel laundering it is very disappointing that no one has been jailed for the offence since 2002, even though 203 plants have been found in the intervening period. In England more than half of the cases involving laundered fuel result in jail terms for those involved.

Suggestions that some suspects here have been tipped off before raids is even more worrying.

Those allegations need to be rigorously investigated. At the moment the criminals face little deterrent and that must change.

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