Talks on stall on National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland, but agreement still possible
Assembly parties have failed to agree – for the second time this year – on whether the new National Crime Agency should operate in Northern Ireland.
But separate behind the scenes discussions involving Sinn Fein and the SDLP with Justice Minister David Ford are ongoing and appear to be making some progress.
At the end of a largely repetitive and poorly attended two-hour debate yesterday, Mr Ford said he had no doubt the absence of a fully-functioning NCA in Northern Ireland would hamper and blunt the fight against organised crime.
But both republicans and nationalists made clear they continue to have major concerns over the lack of accountability of the agency, which has recently replaced the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) in the rest of the UK.
Sinn Fein's Catriona Ruane, a member of the Policing Board, said it was an "abhorrence" that unionists would use emotional issues of human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of young people to score political points.
And her colleague Gerry Kelly, who is also on the board, said despite signing up to the Patten police reforms and the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont, the DUP and Ulster Unionists wanted to return to the "old RUC".
"We are not going to go back to those days. We are still dealing with the legacy of that. The experience in the past is that it will lead to corruption," he said.
And Patsy McGlone of the SDLP, which has said it is keen to allow the NCA to operate in the province if is properly accountable, said he had not heard a single argument which would undermine the party's concern about public confidence in scrutiny of the police.
Traditional Unionist Voice MLA Jim Allister said it was no surprise that Sinn Fein would obstruct and thwart the NCA but he had been surprised by the SDLP "dancing on the head of a pin" over the fight against organised crime.
And NI21's John McCallister said it was "bizarre" that Sinn Fein had referred to the NCA possibly having an office in Dublin but could not countenance one in Northern Ireland, and the issue should be "sorted out" around the Executive table.
The two-hour session was on a DUP motion asking parties to recognise that "failure to establish the NCA in Northern Ireland will impact on the PSNI's ability to protect life".
Opening the debate, Policing Board member David McIlveen questioned the motivation of those opposed, with the PSNI no longer having the power to seize the assets of criminals, particularly in parts of south Armagh. "What is their true motivation? We really need to get to the bottom of that," he said.
An SDLP amendment called on Home Secretary Theresa May and Mr Ford to urgently introduce statutory amendments to guarantee that the NCA and its operations in Northern Ireland "are fully accountable to the Northern Ireland Policing Board".
The party's deputy leader Dolores Kelly said: "The SDLP has worked hard and will continue to work hard to get this right. We are not against the NCA of itself."
In February, Sinn Fein and the SDLP blocked an Assembly 'legislative consent motion' which would have given the green light for the new National Crime Agency to operate in the province. Since then there have been private talks at Stormont involving Justice Minister David Ford which have been brought into sharp relief as the agency came into operation on the mainland last week.