Observers from across Northern Ireland have broadly welcomed the formation of the new paramilitary task force – but have expressed some scepticism about its role and aims.
Last week Chief Constable George Hamilton revealed that a new joint task force to tackle loyalist and republican crime groups will receive £25m over the next five years. He said Northern Ireland has around 100 organised crime groups.
Shankill Road pastor Jack McKee, who has been intimidated by paramilitaries, gave a cautious welcome.
“I would say, I always welcome any response from the PSNI and other authorities to tackle paramilitary abuses, criminality and drug dealing,” he said.
“And I welcome the chief constable’s comment that, ‘the fear and misery caused in our communities by paramilitaries is unacceptable and should not be tolerated’. However, I am so disappointed that this is such a Johnny-come-lately attitude as some of us have been saying this very thing for more than 20 years!”
One security source asked if the new task force would be looking at both historic and current extortion, racketeering and money laundering by PIRA – which he noted still exists according to the 2015 assessment on paramilitary activity commissioned by the secretary of state. The PSNI did not address his question.
The 2015 assessment found that PIRA structures continue “in much reduced form” and individual members continue to be involved in “large scale smuggling”.
UUP MLA Doug Beattie welcomed the new task force, but warned of the need for stronger sentencing and a ‘fully resourced’ prison system with an end to the separated regime.
“Firstly we need to be assured that all this hard work is not negated by courts continuing to hand out lenient sentences that act as neither a deterrent nor a punishment to criminals,” he said last week.
“Certainly last week’s five-year jail terms handed out to two republican terrorists who sought to commit mass murder by bombing a police recruitment event at a Londonderry hotel, did little to inspire confidence.”
SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly asked why it had taken two years since the group was conceived to form it. “No one can be off limits and the task force must address this if it is truly to be effective,” she said. “That means, the results of the task force should be public.”
East Antrim Ulster Unionist Party Assemblyman Roy Beggs hoped to see results in his own area.
“I have witnessed at first hand the damage that paramilitaries inflict on communities – they operate and thrive in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear,” he said.
Newry UUP councillor David Taylor said PIRA members are still involved in criminal activity.
“Dissident republican paramilitary groups in particular remain very active within the south Armagh area,” he said. “They not only continue to pose a serious threat to security force personnel and the general public, it is clear that they also play a prominent role in organised crime. I have no doubt that members of PIRA also remain involved in criminal activity in the south Armagh area.”
DUP MP Ian Paisley welcomed the renewed effort by the PSNI.
“However, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating as I fear by their lack of action to date the authorities have given up on tackling fuel crime,” said the MP. “This is at epidemic proportions across Northern Ireland and GB and HM Revenue and Customs pretending that they have solved the problem with a marker that can be distilled and removed without the by-product of corrosive waste makes this aspect of the fight against crime lamentable.”
Former Special Branch officer said and author of Secret Victory, William Matchett, said tackling organised crime in Northern Ireland is “a hefty challenge” but that the new joint task force is “a step in the right direction” in that it brings leading experts under one roof.
“The new joint task force should tread wearily, and I do not mean turn a blind eye to juicy targets just because they are one side or the other or likely to cause a political outcry. Rather, a popular perspective – and perspective at times is everything here – is that republicans have benefited far more than loyalists from the ‘peace process’. Case selection is therefore crucial.”
However, the PSNI is “a world-class police service; if any one can do it, they can”.
Although the new task force has already seized around £450,000 of criminal assets, the amount the authorities may finally retain – or hand back – has yet to be seen, it is claimed.
One security source asked what proportion of the £450,000 have the courts ordered to be forfeited as a consequence of successful prosecutions in the past year.
The PSNI responded that “all assets seized are currently subject of legal proceedings and going through the appropriate judicial system”.
The security source said: “The issue about the money seized is that police seizure of money and other assets occurs during an investigation; but it is only forfeited when there is a conviction and a court order to dispose.
“One of the true measures of success against organised crime gangs is the value of assets forfeited. These figures are rarely quoted are will be significantly lower than the value of assets seized.”
The task force has made almost 100 arrests in the past year and 66 people have been charged or reported to the PPS. However, it is not known how many have been convicted or jailed.
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