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Mask slips over political class's double standards on the gangster menace

Justice Minister Claire Sugden yesterday launched an organised crime awareness campaign. But public representatives haven't always been so transparent about paramilitary criminality, says Chris Ryder

When civil disorder erupted nearly 50 years ago it masked the onset of an equally significant tsunami: organised crime using the cloak of "patriotism". Now, despite the easing of terrorist violence, there is a debilitating legacy of gang rule gripping large parts of Northern Ireland and a pungent whiff of misconduct hanging over Stormont.

Despite the convention that the rule of law is paramount, the ugly reality is that the multi-headed monster of organised crime is throttling society, challenging the integrity of governance and law enforcement and nourishing widespread sharp practice and financial sleight of hand within civil society and the political class. There was - and continues to be - a dangerous acquiescence that enables misconduct and criminality to flourish.

While the police are committed to prosecuting the offenders, there is a double-standard in play, for the Executive strategy appears to be one of bribing the most brazen criminals with public money in the expectation they will finally abandon their rackets.

Like all phenomena, the crime wave had minuscule origins. Milk and bread roundsmen were relieved of their takings, rent collectors were robbed and corner shops pillaged. In due course bombed premises were looted and a black market in goods stolen from hijacked lorries sprouted in the most lawless neighbourhoods.

As the civil violence escalated, so too did parallel criminality. As pubs were systematically bombed, the paramilitaries on both sides opened illegal drinking dens, which flourished because a supine drinks industry supplied them, often with lorry-loads of alcohol in lieu of paying protection money.

The cancer of crime quickly infected social and business activity at every level. With the massive destruction caused by terrorism the construction industry became hostage to demands for protection money.

One leading UDA figure was the proprietor of a glazing firm that benefited massively from the bombings. Another figure, on the republican side, became known as "the hardboard millionaire" because of his lucrative trade boarding up bombed-out buildings.

Most extortion targets paid up, but those - like a small builder who refused - suffered. He found the two guard dogs he deployed were drugged and stolen within hours.

Organised crime was not confined to what were known as "hard areas". Once an IRA gang - three armed females disguised as nuns - were thwarted robbing a Belfast bank. A subsequent threat to the branch manager was removed after a five-figure "ransom" was handed over to the IRA at a bus stop in Andersonstown.

For their part, the security forces were so overstretched by the scale of terrorism that tackling organised crime was never a priority.

Indeed, despite tough policy statements the official attitude was decidedly laissez-fair. For many years businesses were allowed to claim tax relief on sums paid as protection money and extortionate amounts of cash were extracted from Housing Executive contractors before they were able to build sorely needed homes.

Further spoils accrued from abuses of employment practices - especially in the construction industry. Many sites employed "phantom workers" and false recording of tax details led to serious exploitation of the public purse. Loan-sharking also became rife. Fraudulent claims for bomb damage compensation multiplied.

Over the years the most socially damaging activity became the trafficking of drugs, where paramilitaries co-operated with mainstream criminals to amass eye-watering sums of money.

The most egregious symptom was the emergence of loyalist "brigadiers of bling", who flaunted their considerable wealth with flash cars and flashier jewellery.

The lucrative lawlessness fuelled rivalries and many murders resulted. But the common bond of affluent criminality frequently forged unholy alliances between groups carving up territory despite conflicting political allegiances.

Fuel-laundering, denying the Government significant amounts of taxation, and the smuggling of huge shipments of cheap cigarettes also escalated, again hitting the public purse.

More recent years have seen the rise of prostitution, with paramilitary pimps running brothels in plush apartments. In many cases females have been smuggled here to work in the sex industry and some customers have subsequently been blackmailed.

Although there have been many well-publicised initiatives to combat the scourge of malign community control and organised crime, the reality is that the authorities and the police are still overwhelmed.

To be fair, the police have had some noteworthy successes enforcing the law. They recently seized £2.1m worth of cocaine and arrested a cartel of 19 pushers in the north west. During the last year 12 fuel-laundering plants were dismantled and 59 victims of human trafficking were freed, and they have dealt equally damaging blows to other crime syndicates.

But the scale of the remaining task is truly enormous.

Recently, the PSNI disclosed it was tracking 138 groups comprising home-grown paramilitaries and foreign criminals - all involved in illegal activities.

Despite this there appears to be a practical pragmatism to "tolerate" much of the offending - especially in volatile neighbourhoods.

At a political level there is also an unhealthy acquiescence, enabling notorious individuals to continue their dubious activities.

The use of public money to support "community" organisations, which are nothing more than fronts for organised extortion, is bad enough.

But when elected representatives have no scruples about publicly mingling with people steeped in criminality it amounts to conferring official endorsement of their daytime community roles and their night-time villainy.

The cumulative effect of this top-down complacency about who gets public funding and what they do with it has led to the very frontiers of probity being tested within the public administration.

Who will, therefore, be brave enough to give a lead in reasserting total political transparency and set the agenda for the final crushing of organised crime?

As George Orwell wrote: "A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims... but accomplices."

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