Belfast Telegraph

Global gangsters move in... but there's no FBI-style force here to tackle them

By David Young

The National Crime Agency was set up in 2013 with the resources and powers to tackle drug smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering, sexual exploitation and any other crime that crosses national and international boundaries.

But its work in Northern Ireland has been hampered because of a political row over accountability.

The NCA is directly responsible to the Home Secretary in Whitehall. It was this direct reporting to London that led Sinn Fein and the SDLP to block the day-to-day operations of the NCA in Northern Ireland.

They take the view that under the 1998 Belfast Agreement, oversight and monitoring of policing in Northern Ireland was allocated to the Policing Board and as a consequence no other accountability mechanism is appropriate.

The present position is that the NCA operates normally in relation to powers which are not devolved to Stormont - most notably operations related to border and Customs issues. However, it is prevented from carrying out the broader crime-fighting role it has in the rest of the UK.

The PSNI is on record as saying that this puts an operational burden on it that other UK forces do not have to shoulder. It says Northern Ireland is increasingly being targeted by international crime gangs, and that the support of the NCA is essential to fight crime of this scale.

In 2014 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child said that Northern Ireland was increasingly vulnerable to child sex abuse crimes because of its refusal to allow the NCA to operate fully - a view shared by Justice Minister David Ford.

In October 2014 Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris told the Policing Board that around £13m worth of assets accrued by crime gang bosses - mainly loyalist paramilitaries in east Belfast - can't be seized by the PSNI because only the NCA has those powers.

The NCA has 4,500 officers and a budget for 2014/2015 of £464m.

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