Debating an Ulster Unionist motion on what is emerging as a serious rift at Stormont, the SDLP and Sinn Fein tabled a petition of concern which forced a cross-community vote and allowed nationalist MLAs to defeat the motion.
The private member’s motion — which merely expresses the Assembly’s opinion on an issue — would not have reversed the Executive’s decision to stop the National Crime Agency (NCA) from operating in Northern Ireland but led to strong opposition from Sinn Fein and the SDLP.
During the debate, two senior DUP MLAs backed up the claim by Ian Paisley Jnr last week — which at the time some thought to be a solo run by the MP — that Sinn Fein had blocked the NCA because it has links to organised crime.
In a further unusual move, two senior police officers watched from the Assembly’s public gallery as a key policing debate took place beneath them.
Keith Bristow, the NCA’s chief executive, and PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris were at Stormont to brief several political parties.
Mr Bristow stayed to observe what was a frequently heated debate.
Every unionist who voted — along with the Alliance MLAs — voted for the motion, while every nationalist voted against.
Former UUP leader Tom Elliott, who tabled the motion, had earlier led a UUP delegation to meet Mr Bristow.
Mr Elliott said: “The Ulster Unionist Party deplores the antics of Sinn Fein and the SDLP in seeking to prohibit the NCA from operating in Northern Ireland.
“The current situation is exactly what we were wary of when we opposed the devolution of policing and justice almost three years ago and it is with some regret that we have been proved right.
“The benefits of having the NCA operate in Northern Ireland include law enforcement here, being able to access skills at a national UK level, and take advantage of economies of scale.”
He added: “The safety of our citizens must be paramount and the SDLP and Sinn Fein must explain why they want to bring about a situation whereby Northern Ireland is the weak link in the UK’s fight against organised crime.”
Speaking in the debate, future DUP Health Minister Jim Wells said: “I am not remotely surprised at Sinn Fein because many of their erstwhile friends are involved in [crime].”
However, Mr Wells said that he was surprised at the stance of the SDLP.
And, echoing the phrase used by Ian Paisley Jnr in Parliament last week, Mr Wells said that Sinn Fein had a “vested interest” in opposing the NCA as an agency which could effectively tackle organised crime.
Mr Wells said that women were being trafficked from around the world and held in Northern Ireland in “wretched conditions”.
DUP chairman Lord Morrow said that the SDLP and Sinn Fein’s actions mean that “Northern Ireland will be seen as a backwater when it comes to tackling crime” and said their actions were “not only irresponsible, but dangerous”.
And, also echoing Mr Paisley’s comments, Lord Morrow spoke of “continuing PIRA activities” and referred to money-laundering.
The UUP’s Roy Beggs said that Northern Ireland could become “a weak spot in the fight against criminality” and “in danger of becoming a laughing stock”.
The DUP chairman of the Justice Committee, Paul Givan, said that the position of nationalist MLAs was “completely bankrupt” because they had signed up to the devolution of policing and justice with the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) — the NCA’s predecessor — in place.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly insisted that his party was “for policing and for moving ahead” and said that his party opposed crime.
However, he said that the NCA “will not be accountable to the Policing Board or any of the other mechanisms”, and said that the body would “have the power of secrecy”.
SDLP MLA Alban Maginness said: “I just want to make it plain: The SDLP is against organised crime, we’re against human trafficking, we’re against child exploitation……we’re not against the NCA but what we are for is Patten and…ensuring that the accountability mechanisms under Patten remain in place.”
Mr Maginness said that he was “not anti-British” and quoted the unionist Mail on Sunday columnist Christopher Hitchens denouncing the new agency as “anti-British”.
But Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson attacked the “weasel words” of nationalist MLAs and said that today the Assembly would hear “pious words” from “those who would tie our hands behind our back” in tackling online criminality.
He added: “This is too serious a matter for the members of this House and the citizens of Northern Ireland not to be defended from these heinous crimes by allowing the NCA to operate here.”
SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt said that the current policing arrangements had secured unprecedented support for the police, both within both unionism and nationalism, and warned: “We should be careful not to destroy that which we now need most to defend.”
Setting out a series of concessions given to Stormont by the Home Secretary, Justice Minister David Ford told the Assembly that the NCA director general would not have the powers of a constable within Northern Ireland; there would be consultation with the Justice Minister about the director general’s appointment; and there would be oversight by the Police Ombudsman of the work of the NCA in Northern Ireland.
He said that the accountability of the NCA would be “significantly stronger” than it presently is for SOCA.
And Mr Ford said that in almost three years as Justice Minister he was unaware of any complaints about SOCA, adding: “If SOCA was so bad, one would have thought that those concerns would have been made aware to me before now – but they haven’t been.”
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