PSNI in new war on paramilitary terror gangs
Exclusive: Specialist squad with 56 officers unveiled after loyalist feud murder raises tensions
More than 50 officers are to join a new policing unit dedicated to crushing paramilitary gangsterism across Northern Ireland.
Investigators will target key loyalist and republican paramilitaries involved in criminality and organised crime, as well as low-level gang members.
Specialist financial probes will also seek to identify and seize assets gained through criminality.
The team will comprise of 56 police officers and six police staff at an annual cost of over £4m a year for five years, the Northern Ireland Policing Board has been informed.
This model is considered to be "the optimal resource necessary to deliver effective, long term dismantling of paramilitary groups", the PSNI said.
Calls have been made for a more "robust" strategy from Stormont to deal with paramilitarism in the wake of the murder of prominent loyalist John 'Bonzer' Boreland.
The 42-year-old's murder last Sunday night has reignited concern over paramilitary criminality.
An assessment by the PSNI and MI5 last year of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland concluded that members of organisations like the UVF, Red hand Commando, UDA, PIRA and INLA, "continue to engage in violent activity, both directed by local leadership and conducted without sanction".
The assessment, which was commissioned by the Secretary of State, said that "violence and intimidation are used to exercise control at a community level".
It also confirmed that they are involved in large-scale smuggling operations, fuel laundering, drug dealing and extortion of local businesses. The PSNI said that the objective of its five-year strategy to tackle paramilitary activity is "the dismantling of organised crime gangs".
However, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson warned that a "culture of fear" is preventing people from reporting paramilitary criminality to police.
"You have to have the evidence to bring people before the courts. If a businessman is facing a demand for money the police need that businessman to stand up in court and give evidence. There's a culture of fear that we need to tackle and that's how the paramilitaries operate. Rounding them up is one thing, convicting in court is another," he told the BBC's Nolan Show.
Victims campaigner Raymond McCord, whose son was murdered by the UVF, said communities remained to be convinced by the PSNI's determination to stamp out paramilitarism.
"When you have police officers watching a gang of UVF men march down a main road and into a housing estate in a show of strength like they did last week on the Shore Road, how can you believe they are really going to tackle paramilitarism?" said Mr McCord.
"Until the police show they can stand up to paramilitaries we will see more murders like the murder of John Boreland."
Dr Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in criminology at the Ulster University, said that any focused resources could only be a positive development.
"However, this can only succeed with support and contribution from communities. People must feel safe reporting crimes and must believe that the police can protect them and ensure paramilitaries are removed from the community," he said.
The proposed new policing unit is part of the PSNI's response to a panel report in May on the disbandment of paramilitary groups. The panel was one of the key components of the 'Fresh Start' agreement.
In June the PSNI received £1.1m funding to increase its capability to tackle criminality associated with paramilitary groups. This money is being used to create an investigative team with an inspector, two sergeants, eight constables, a financial investigator and an analyst. It is understood this team will join the new unit when it is formed.