05/07/2006

Criminal activity could damage NI's progress

A House of Commons Committee report has today revealed that paramilitary involvement in criminal activity could be extremely damaging to Northern Ireland's political progress.

Sir Patrick Cormack, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee said: “The Committee’s Report on Organised Crime in Northern Ireland reveals the damaging effect that organised crime continues to have on society and on the economy in Northern Ireland.

"Paramilitaries or former paramilitaries from both republican and loyalist sides continue to exercise control over communities, leading to the under-reporting of crimes. The involvement of the paramilitaries gives organised crime in Northern Ireland a unique dimension and ensures that it has a more damaging effect on society and the economy than in other parts of the United Kingdom. Paramilitary involvement in organised crime also threatens political progress in Northern Ireland."

He continued by saying that excise and tax frauds (including oils fraud and cigarette smuggling), intellectual property crime, extortion, drugs, armed robbery and cash in transit attacks, money laundering and illegal dumping, have been identified as the major areas of organised criminal activity in Northern Ireland, and added that there is also disturbing evidence that human trafficking is an emerging problem.

Sir Patrick said: "The Committee has heard reports of paramilitary involvement in each of these areas and extraordinary reports of alliances between republican and loyalist paramilitaries for certain specific, often drug related, organised criminal activities."

The report also stressed that organised crime is having a damaging effect on local businesses, many of which are targeted for extortion, which deters them from setting up in certain areas.

Petrol retailers here are also understood to have come under particular pressure to accept smuggled and laundered fuel and face threats when they refuse to do so. Many in the construction industry in Northern Ireland have also been subject to extortion demands from both loyalist and republican paramilitary organisations.

Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, continued by saying that the Committee commends the efforts of the PSNI in combating organised crime, but believes that the fight against it is a shared responsibility between the police, the other law enforcement agencies, the Northern Ireland Departments and the community at large, especially its political leaders.

"Community support is vital to the fight against organised crime and to reducing the hold of paramilitaries. However, the efforts of the PSNI will be limited as long as Sinn Fein withholds its support for, and recognition of, the legitimacy of the PSNI."

The report also added that cross border cooperation is vital to combating organised crime and the Committee welcomes the successful arrangements for joint operations between the law enforcement agencies in Northern Ireland and those in the Republic of Ireland.

Sir Patrick continued: "The Committee welcomes the Government’s plans to revise licensing regimes for the petrol retail industry, the taxi trade, the road haulage industry and the private security industry but believes these plans are long overdue. However, the Committee has been astounded by the delay in bringing in regulation for charities in Northern Ireland which have gone largely unregulated for years; it has heard evidence of paramilitary exploitation of “charities” for the misuse and laundering of funds.

"There is a perception that those found guilty of crimes associated with organised crime do not receive sentences that match the severity of their crimes. The Committee calls for connection with organised crime to be made an aggravating factor in sentencing."

The Chairman concluded: "There is also a damaging perception in Northern Ireland that certain organised criminal activity, including intellectual property crime and fuel smuggling, is victimless. There is no such thing as a victimless crime. All of the criminal activities that we have examined are regularly accompanied by threats, or by violence and all play a part in the financing of criminal gangs.”

(EF/SP)

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