A UK-wide crimebusting agency with the power to confiscate the money and property of criminal gangs has been given the go-ahead to operate in Northern Ireland.
he Assembly yesterday voted to open the door to the National Crime Agency - described as the UK's FBI - ending a two-year political stalemate.
The dramatic vote overturned two previous separate rejections of the organisation by MLAs because of nationalist fears it was not accountable to elected representatives.
Meanwhile concerns were growing that Northern Ireland was becoming a soft target for organised crime gangs because the PSNI does not have the same powers to seize gangsters' assets.
The former head of the Assets Recovery Agency, Alan McQuillan, said the operation of the NCA would close a glaring gap in crimefighting here.
He said: "In recent weeks we have seen reports of Irish organised crime stretching as far as Australia. The NCA is the leader in the fight against organised crime and it is therefore vital we do everything possible to ensure it can work effectively in Northern Ireland and in co-operation with the Garda Síochána in the Republic.
"Organised crime will always go to the area of weakness. They will always look for the weakest jurisdiction in which to commit their crimes, somewhere they can hide and launder their money.
"This has been a glaring gap so closing it should make a real difference."
A motion to support the implementation of the NCA in Northern Ireland was passed yesterday by 68 votes to 26 at Stormont after the SDLP dropped its opposition to the move.
However, there was trenchant resistance from Sinn Fein, which was one vote short of being able to block the move.
Concerns over the accountability of the NCA gave rise to nationalist fears it could be a 'force within a force' and operate like MI5 and Special Branch at times in the past. But following months of detailed negotiations led by Justice Minister David Ford, the NCA will be subject to the same code of ethics that applies to the PSNI.
In addition, the NCA's director general, Keith Bristow, will be accountable to the Policing Board in relation to NI issues, but not non-devolved matters such as customs.
SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly told MLAs: "We are pleased with the level of accountability that we have achieved. It is a day when the SDLP is again giving leadership on policing on the basis of what is right."
But Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly warned that Home Secretary Theresa May could extend the remit of the NCA without reference to the Assembly, and said the process of negotiations had been "underhanded". He also voiced fears that the NCA could become the "arresting arm" of MI5.
But former SDLP Minister Alex Attwood argued that even the DUP and other unionists accept that "the thresholds of accountability are beyond what was there two years ago and better than elsewhere".
A legislative order will now go through Westminster in the next few weeks allowing the NCA to begin operations here around the time of the election in May.
Questions and answers
Q. What is the National Crime Agency?
A. With more than 4,000 officers, the National Crime Agency (NCA) claims to lead UK law enforcement’s fight against serious and organised crime — with both a national and international reach. It replaced the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) and its director general Keith Bristow is a former director of the National Criminal Intelligence service.
Q. What crimes does the agency target?
A. Drug cartels and people trafficking as well as complex international fraud, including cyber-crime.
Q. How does the NCA actually work?
A. Its website talks about the four ‘P’s’ — Pursue people engaged in serious and organised crime; Prevent people from becoming involved in serious and organised crime; Protect against serious and organised crime; Prepare by reducing the impact of serious and organised crime where it takes place.
Q. How is it different from the ordinary police?
A. Each police force in the UK is responsible for its own area but the NCA has a more strategic role in which it will attempt to look at the bigger picture of organised crime.
Q. How big is organised crime?
A. It is estimated there are up to 160 criminal gangs operating in Northern Ireland. Since the NCA was formed but not operating here, it is thought loyalist paramilitary godfathers alone have amassed around £13m in profits from their criminal activities. Nationally, the NCA says that there are some 37,000 people in 5,500 groups that are involved in organised crime that has an impact on the UK. Half of the gangs operating directly in the UK are involved in drugs.
Q. How is the NCA different to Soca?
A. The NCA’s role is larger than Soca’s because it has more areas of responsibility. The new agency has four “commands”: organised crime, economic crime, borders, and the formerly separate Ceop — the agency that covers child exploitation and online protection. Officers come from a range of backgrounds, not necessarily confined to law enforcement.
Q. But what went wrong in Northern Ireland?
A. The NCA ran up against the ‘new beginning’ to policing promised as far back as the Patten reforms to the RUC and the devolution of policing and justice in 2011. The political deal that resulted in Sinn Fein buying into policing structures meant a far higher degree of monitoring and accountability than in other parts of the UK. The chief constable and officers are responsible to the Policing Board. The NCA answers directly to the Home Secretary.