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The untouchable millions of paramilitary bosses: Political deadlock prevents agency making seizures

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Police are unable to touch almost £13m worth of criminal assets belonging to gang bosses because of political bickering over the operation of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland

Police are unable to touch almost £13m worth of criminal assets belonging to gang bosses because of political bickering over the operation of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland

National Crime Agency

National Crime Agency

Police are unable to touch almost £13m worth of criminal assets belonging to gang bosses because of political bickering over the operation of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland

Police are unable to touch almost £13m worth of criminal assets belonging to gang bosses because of political bickering over the operation of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland.

Properties, cars and bank accounts owned by loyalist paramilitaries have been identified by the PSNI as assets attained through criminality.

But officers are powerless to seize them without the assistance of the NCA, which has been blocked from operating in the province by Sinn Fein and the SDLP due to concerns over the accountability of the Agency's officers.

The inability to strip loyalist paramilitary crime gangs of their criminal fortunes means police are struggling to bring them down, Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris warned the Policing Board during a private meeting, also attended by the NCA's director general, on Thursday.

Mr Harris, who for several years has been in command of the PSNI's Crime Operations Department, is understood to have revealed to Board members that £12.8m of criminal assets are unclaimed.

Only the NCA has the civil recovery expertise and powers needed to take the money off the gangs.

Taking these assets from crime bosses would effectively shut down their criminal operations, including drugs smuggling, extortion, money laundering and counterfeiting, Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said.

"Drew Harris made it very clear that not being able to recover £12.8m of assets is making the PSNI ineffective in tackling loyalist paramilitaries, particularly in east Belfast," the DUP man said.

"Lives are being destroyed by these crime gangs. My wife just attended the funeral of a young man who died after taking a bad batch of drugs. The lives of his mother and father have been destroyed. People are dying out there because the police can't close these boys down. That's the reality," he added.

Keith Bristow, the director general of the NCA, joined Mr Harris and Chief Constable George Hamilton at last week's private Policing Board meeting in a bid to convince the SDLP and Sinn Fein to allow the Agency to operate in the province. A number of revised plans have been drawn up detailing operational and accountability measures.

These include an arrangement whereby the head of the NCA would be compelled to appear before the Policing Board, the NCA would not operate in Northern Ireland without the knowledge and authority of the PSNI Chief Constable and NCA officers would be accountable to the Policing Board.

While the SDLP has been working with the Chief Constable and the Justice Minister to try to resolve the impasse, it is understood that Sinn Fein has not even responded to requests from the justice department for a meeting about the issue.

Justice Minister David Ford said: "We have made some useful progress with a number of parties in looking at how the NCA might operate in a devolved sphere. We have not yet had engagement with Sinn Fein. They have talked about concerns but have not explained what they are."

SDLP Policing Board member Dolores Kelly said that the proposals over accountability "are moving in the right direction", but that clarity on some matters is still needed.

"It is something we are working very hard at and are very focused on. We are committed to getting it right and there is a lot of hard talking ongoing," she added.

The NCA, described as the UK's FBI, was created to lead the fight to cut serious and organised crime, including economic crime, cyber crime and child sex abuse.

It took over from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) in October 2013. Soca provided operational support to the PSNI's most complex organised crime investigations.

Since the introduction of the NCA, the PSNI has had to take responsibility for any of the agency's Northern Ireland probes.

STORY SO FAR

There are between 140 and 160 organised crime groups active in Northern Ireland dealing in sexual exploitation, human trafficking, drugs, firearms and money laundering. The National Crime Agency, the UK-wide crime taskforce that tackles serious organised crime, is unable to operate here because of political opposition. This is heaping additional pressure on an already overstretched PSNI.

Belfast Telegraph


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