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Time to hit paramilitary criminals where it will really hurt... in their pockets

Assets-seizing unit would help boost plan to fight gangsters, insists Henry McDonald

Published 25/07/2016

Journalist Veronica Guerin was shot dead 20 years ago
Journalist Veronica Guerin was shot dead 20 years ago
Jimmy Guerin

Among the many anniversaries and centenaries of 2016 stands one that for many journalists - especially those working in the Republic - is both personal and haunting.

It is the 20th anniversary of the murder of investigative reporter Veronica Guerin. The fearless Sunday Independent journalist made a name for herself exposing crime gang leaders, whose importation of drugs into Ireland has created a narcotic-hooked generation.

In the end her investigations cost Veronica her life, particularly after she wrote many articles about gangster John Gilligan.

Her brother Jimmy, a friend of mine, believes the present war against the new crime gangs which have gone forth and multiplied since her murder in June 1996, most prevalently in Dublin, is being lost.

In Jimmy Guerin's eyes, the State doesn't have the will to take the gangsters on.

Hence the brazen guile of the Hutch gang in staging an all-out, public assault on the rival criminals aligned to Costa del Sol-based crime lord Christy Kinahan at a boxing match weigh-in in a north Dublin hotel in February.

However, Jimmy points out that there is still one monument created in response to his sister's death - the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) in the same year she was murdered.

The CAB was drawn up to hit the leading gangsters where it hurt most - in their pockets.

Headed up, initially, by one of the shrewdest detectives in the Republic, Felix McKenna, the CAB seized the bank accounts, properties, cars, boats, riding schools, businesses and other assets obtained from the proceeds of crime.

In many cases the more intelligent criminals in the underworld went into self-exile in The Netherlands, Spain or Morocco in order to escape the CAB's dragnet.

During the Republic's general election earlier this year Jimmy (who stood as an Independent) reacted to the new gangland warfare triggered by the Regency Hotel attack by stating that, while the State still had the mechanism in place, there was no political will to use the CAB's powers.

If the CAB could be re-energised it might start counteracting gangland's wealth, power and influence once again.

The Regency assault and the subsequent war that has left nine men dead bears great relevance to the fight against crime and paramilitarism in Northern Ireland.

While an initial statement from the Continuity IRA on the day of the attack, during a boxing bout weigh-in, turned out to be a bogus smokescreen, there was - and is - clear evidence of ex-republican paramilitary involvement in this feud.

Republican weapons, bomb-making know-how - even gunmen - have been bought or hired by both gangs in the most vicious and bloody crime war in the modern history of the country.

In many ways what is happening in the Republic follows a familiar pattern across parts of Europe, which has been blighted by organised crime.

As the author and journalist Alexander Stille noted in his masterpiece Excellent Cadavers, a book about the anti-Mafia judges of the 1980s, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra has its roots in the island's autonomous, politically-motivated armed movement from the 19th century.

Many armed political groupings, though certainly not all of them, have morphed in places like Italy into self-aggrandising, organised criminal conspiracies. Ireland, it seems, to an extent follows that evolution.

The two-party dominated Northern Ireland Executive has drawn up its own plans to tackle organised crime in the region, which both Ulster Unionists and Alliance have dismissed as not being strong enough to cope with this ongoing and evolving phenomenon.

Among the most critical voices of the new plan is Alliance leader David Ford.

He said the new anti-crime proposals were "not what was needed to combat paramilitarism".

Ford added: "Throughout the Executive response there appears to be a lot of non-specific language, with no timescales and little indication of funding to be provided.

"Without any measurable objectives, it would be simple for the Executive to fudge its actions over this matter.

"The response also commits many of the recommendations to existing reviews and processes, rather than demonstrating innovative thinking."

This is a fair enough critique of the plan - if you forget for one moment the job David Ford was doing when Alliance participated in the last five-party, coalition prior to this May's Assembly election. The Alliance chief held the position of Justice Minister from April 2010 until this year.

So, the question can be put with some justification to Ford: you were Justice Minister for six years, so why wasn't a comprehensive action plan to combat paramilitarism and organised crime not drawn up during your watch?

It is, of course, easy to be retrospectively negative about such things, whereas it is harder to put forward practical suggestions which go beyond the threadbare nature of the current anti-paramilitarism/anti-crime action plan.

One concrete measure that could be put forward is for an Assets Recovery Agency Mark II - modelled, once more, on the Republic's CAB.

The original Assets Recovery Agency, headed up by former senior RUC officer Alan McQuillan, was making some headway in terms of freezing and seizing criminal assets.

It has been heavily hinted that McQuillan and ARA, however, were sacrificed in order to keep areas like south Armagh sweet when the IRA endorsed Sinn Fein's backing for the new policing and justice arrangements.

That is, if the lads on the border could carry on smuggling, polluting the region with chemical by-products from diesel washing and importing counterfeit goods minus the watchful eye of the ARA, then republicans could give their support to the PSNI and the judicial system.

Should a new ARA-style body be resurrected to meet with the challenges post-conflict organised crime is posing to Northern Ireland today? It has taken nine deaths and numerous attempted murders this year in the Republic's capital to wake up the State to the reach organised crime has and the serious damage it can inflict on wider society.

In response, the Dail is currently passing new legislation to inject stronger powers into the CAB.

These include, as Fine Gael senator Martin Conway pointed out last Thursday, making it easier for CAB investigators to target criminal assets.

After the new law is fully in place, senator Conway reminded us, the threshold value of assets the CAB can seize will go down from €13,000 (£10,900) to €5,000 (£4,100). Which means even the street gangsters - or the so-called "soldiers" of the crime gangs - can have even their small fortunes frozen and eventually taken off them.

Just imagine Justice Minister Claire Sugden and her department having the same type of powers in Northern Ireland, where even the savings accounts of petty gangsters like the current feuding UDA factions in Carrickfergus, wreaking havoc in parts of the east Antrim town, would not be safe from scrutiny.

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