Unionists hit out as UN condemns crimebuster ban
The two main unionist parties have rounded on Sinn Fein and the SDLP after a United Nations committee warned that failing to allow the National Crime Agency (NCA) to operate in Northern Ireland leaves children vulnerable to organised crime.
The DUP and Ulster Unionists accused the two nationalist parties of putting politics ahead of the protection of children and young people because international crime gangs are operating in the region.
The Assembly has twice rejected extending the NCA – known as the British FBI – to Northern Ireland because of Sinn Fein and SDLP fears it would not be accountable to the policing board.
The UN committee on the Rights of the Child said it was "strongly concerned" the NCA did not have powers here because it meant the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre was not fully operational.
The report also voiced concern about "the lack of a multi-agency system to identify and respond to children who are at a particular risk... such as children reported as missing, those forcibly trafficked... or children in institutions, especially in Northern Ireland."
The UU's Tom Elliott said: "Sinn Fein and the SDLP are putting nationalist politics ahead of the protection of children.
"(My party) has warned time and time again that we are more vulnerable to serious organised crime than any other part of the United Kingdom," the party's justice spokesman added.
"It is a total disgrace that children in Northern Ireland should have less protection because of the petty politics of Sinn Fein and the SDLP. They need to get real and support the National Crime Agency being given full operational powers in Northern Ireland."
DUP MLA Robin Newton said nationalist politicians should "hang their heads in shame" and the public would be baffled by Sinn Fein and the SDLP following "their own narrow political agenda.
"Innocent children are at risk and are being let down by the failure of nationalist politicians to agree the legislation," he said.
The Policing Board member said the NCA explicitly targets crime gangs involved in child sexual exploitation and abuse, human trafficking, money laundering and the escalating dangers from international drug gangs.
"The PSNI does not exist in a policing bubble. We cannot expect them to operate as if the crime gangs stop at the border or our ports; sophisticated international crime gangs do operate in Northern Ireland," he added.
But the SDLP's Alban Maginness said there was no evidence of young people being exploited by organised crime in NI and the report was addressing a potential concern rather than reality.
"We don't want the NIC to be an additional 'super-police' force like the FBI in America and not to be accountable. Accountability of policing was a hard-fought-for part of the devolution settlement and we will not give that up easily," the north Belfast MLA added.
"Until the British Government shows some determination to agree accountability measures there will be no progress and we have made that abundantly clear to the DUP, Ulster Unionists, Justice Minister (David Ford) and the British Government." There was no immediate comment from Sinn Fein.