Belfast Telegraph

'Blind eye to smuggling' aids gangs

Authorities in Northern Ireland are attempting to keep paramilitary groups sweet by turning a blind eye to smuggling, MPs have heard.

Democratic Unionist William McCrea said the approach had allowed the organisations to swell their coffers and stand in elections against candidates seeking to do things legally.

The DUP's justice spokesman in the Commons added Northern Ireland has been viewed as an "attractive" region for international crime gangs due to the resistance to establish the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the country.

He also hit out at Sinn Fein's "hostility" to the NCA, claiming they have a vested interest in hindering investigations into the "s kulduggery of their republican mates".

Mr McCrea made the remarks as he opened a parliamentary debate on serious organised crime across the border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, including fuel smuggling, fuel laundering and counterfeit goods.

He said t he smuggling of black market cigarettes is "extremely lucrative" for organised gangs, which costs the UK Government £2 billion a year in lost taxes.

On the lack of arrests, the South Antrim MP said: "It's believed by many in the province that authorities are turning a blind eye to it because this is the way to keep some of the paramilitary groupings sweet, and they are able to fill the coffers of their organisations and even stand in elections against those who are seeking to do things in a legal and proper fashion.

"Although earlier this month five people from County Armagh and County Tyrone were arrested as part of an investigation into a suspected £110 million tobacco fraud, it highlights Northern Ireland as an attractive region for international crime gangs due to the inertia of parties failing to support the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland in past months."

Mr McCrea said statistics showed the scale of not having the NCA in operation over the past 18 months.

He said: "It's no accident these quantities of illegal substances are being smuggled across the border into Northern Ireland.

"These gangs know only too well that at present if the gang leaders are caught some of their assets can't be taken off them, and for the past 18 months we have a soft-touch for smugglers and criminal gangs and although the NCA is now expected to be operational by May it is largely the case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

"Nothing surprises us about the intransigence of Sinn Fein and their hostility to the introduction of the NCA - they have a vested interest in seeking to hinder investigations into the skulduggery of their republican mates.

"But indeed others have dithered in their support for the NCA and have denied the exchequer millions of pounds of lost revenue, which ultimately could have benefited the people of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland executive."

For the Government, Andrew Murrison said the country has "particular issues around criminality" and the challenges "peculiar" to Northern Ireland cannot be ignored.

The Northern Ireland Minister said: "We owe it to people in Northern Ireland to address them to the best of our ability."

He said the Government has a "comprehensive strategy" to tackle fuel fraud and crime, adding that HMRC's latest tax gap figures indicate the e stimated illicit market share for diesel for Northern has fallen from 26% to 13%.

Ian Paisley, DUP MP for North Antrim, pushed Mr Murrison to confirm that a new fuel marker - designed to banish fuel fraud - cannot be tested at the roadside.

The Tory frontbencher said the marker had been a long time in the making and trialled in both the UK and Republic of Ireland, with both countries happy.

Mr Paisley intervened again: "You cannot combat crime if you're not able to stop someone who has this fuel and test it at the roadside.

"One of the requirements of the IMS test was to have a roadside capability. Can you just confirm the dye marker has no roadside capability?"

Mr Murrison replied: "What I can confirm is that this marker is capable of being discovered, otherwise there would be no point in having it. What would be the point of going to the expense to put in a marker if it wasn't possible for criminal justice agencies to determine whether the material was illicit or not?"

Intervening, DUP MP David Simpson (Upper Bann) pressed the minister on the issue of the marker claiming it could be removed from the fuel.

Mr Murrison said the new marker was an improvement on the current situation, but added he could not give an "absolute assurance" that any substance could never be removed.

In his speech Mr Simpson predicted that the Government would introduce the marker only to find it does not work.

He asked why the Dow Chemical Company - which produces the marker - was not thrown out of the tendering process when it was fined 1.1 billion dollars £730m) under EU law for fraud in 2013.

He also asked why the technology was awarded to the American firm with no roadside test when the other British company had one.

Shadow Home Affairs minister Jack Dromey said the Government had opted for the "flawed" marker over a British product that was proved to be unmoveable but more expensive.

He added: "That cannot be right in terms of both combating fuel laundering but also I have to say it cannot be right if a good British product has been turned down in favour of an alternative which is flawed.

"If we are finally and fully to combat the menace of fuel laundering then we need to be absolutely confident that what we have works."

He told MPs that Labour was concerned about the links between organised crime and dissident republican groups because it put at risk peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

But he also pointed out it was not only republicans who had been involved in such practices.

He welcomed the agreement enabling full implementation of the NCA in Northern Ireland as a means of cracking down on crime.

Alliance MP Naomi Long (Belfast East) stressed the need to sway public opinion against counterfeiting as the best way of tackling smuggling rings and paramilitary groups.

She said the public need to be shown that they lose out from buying counterfeit goods as tax is avoided and therefore hits services like the NHS, that it is "not a victimless crime".

Ms Long said: "In all cases whether it is the counterfeiting and laundering, whether it is the smuggled goods, they are evading their tax and revenue which brings us back to the issue of robbing public services.

"Those who buy cheap cigarettes or cheap petrol and diesel, those who purchase counterfeit goods may think that it makes no difference.

"But when they turn up at the hospital and the waiting times for A&E are long, when they can't get a bed and are lying on a trolley for 48 hours, it is because of money that is not going into the revenue that we have those problems.

"We have got to be honest with the public that you're only stealing from yourself when you purchase goods in this way."

"However in Northern Ireland it has I think a more sinister element and a number of members have alluded to it in that much of the money that is raised by these people is also being funnelled into further illegal activity and in the case of Northern Ireland into paramilitary activity."

She added: "We need public support because with the support of the public I believe that the issue of being able to find those who are behind these smuggling rings, hold them to account in the courts and see people actually serve jail time for what they are doing will be much, much easier."

The SDLP's Mark Durkan (Foyle) said that there is a sense that the police ignore "privatised" paramilitary groups if they stick to the peace process.

Mr Durkan said: "There is a sense of scandal in many quarters of the public that as we have moved on from paramilitarism in all the forms that we knew it during the Troubles that there was basically an acceptance that some paramilitaries would privatise themselves into various criminal avenues.

"And so long as somebody was able to vouch for the fact that they were staying on the right side of the peace process argument within their broad political community then they would be okay."

The DUP motion, which among other things called on the Government to ensure greater cooperation between HMRC, the NCA and PSNI to eradicate serious organised crime, was passed unopposed.

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