THE SDLP yesterday insisted that officers in the new FBI-style agency tasked to fight organised crime across the UK should have no law enforcement powers in Northern Ireland.
The party made the comments as the News Letter uncovered in detail concessions that Justice Minister David Ford claims he has won for himself and his Executive colleagues as the draft legislation for the National Crime Agency (NCA) is processed through Westminster.
Mr Ford says the Home Secretary is prepared to make certain concessions if the Assembly agrees to Westminster enacting the legislation for Northern Ireland.
However, the Executive has not agreed to the Home Secretary’s terms and discussions on what happens next are ongoing between the director-general of the NCA and some Northern Ireland political representatives.
Despite Mr Ford’s assurances, the SDLP and Sinn Fein have expressed serious concerns that the new agency would be unaccountable to local politicians and would undermine confidence in policing.
The NCA is due to replace the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) this year and will be answerable to the Home Office. It had been intended it will have powers to direct local police forces to carry out operations against gangs involved in areas such as drug smuggling, human trafficking and child pornography.
Officers in the existing agency which the NCA will succeed, SOCA, can currently be designated with the powers of a police constable, customs officer, immigration officer, or a combination of these, depending on operations. However the SDLP says that in future, NCA officers should have no more powers than civilians.
SDLP justice spokesperson Alban Maginness told the News Letter yesterday that while accepting Mr Ford’s sincerity, the only assurances his party would accept about the NCA were those which are set down in legislation. His party’s two key demands are that:
n Individual NCA officers in Northern Ireland should not have the legal powers of normal police officers and should be put on the same legal footing as civilians;
n That the NCA should not have the power to run agents in Northern Ireland and to use subsequent intelligence.
TUV leader Jim Allister said yesterday the Executive veto could result in a “ludicrous” situation where the NCA could investigate terrorist-related matters in Northern Ireland – because these are not devolved – but would be powerless to investigate any related organised crime matters. Mr Maginness responded that “such a situation could arise but I think it highly unlikely”.
In light of his own concerns and those of his Executive colleagues, Mr Ford said he has won some special concessions for Northern Ireland in the proposed legislation, including:
n That the NCA director-general (DG) would not have the powers of a constable in Northern Ireland, meaning there would not be two Chief Constables with authority here and the PSNI would have primacy;
n The DG may not direct PSNI officers, unlike in England and Wales;
n The NCA would be subject to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland;
n NCA special support staff, who can provide additional expertise, would not have the powers of constables here, as opposed to the position in England and Wales;
n The justice minister would be consulted on the NCA’s strategic and annual plans.
Other assurances the justice minister has been given but which are not yet secured in legislation are that the NCA director-general would meet the Policing Board at least once a year and would be required to take account of the NI policing plan. There are also plans for a memorandum of understanding between the police and NCA which will include a local group chaired by the PSNI which would coordinate operations of all Northern Ireland law enforcement agencies, including NCA. The memorandum would also require consultation with the NI Policing Board by the justice minister on the NCA annual and strategic plans.
Mr Ford said this week on the issue: “I think there is a real danger that if it doesn’t go ahead that there will be very significant costs to the police both in terms of time and finances and we will have an inferior response to the serious organised crime that we face.”
Speaking in the Commons last year, the then Secretary of State Owen Paterson said the NCA would operate in a way that “respects the accountability mechanisms in Northern Ireland”.
Mr Paterson added: “In effect, no direction will go forward without the compliance of the Chief Constable.”
UUP justice spokesman Tom Elliott said there was a danger of the NCA being reduced to a weak and ineffective body if the Government agreed to concessions in a bid to placate political parties.
“Many people will be intrigued and no doubt alarmed at the revelation that attempts have been made to secure concessions regarding the operation of the National Crime Agency within Northern Ireland in order to placate Sinn Fein and the SDLP,” he said. “This immediately leads to three questions. Just who has been ‘negotiating’ these compromises, on whose authority and what exactly do they entail? What we must avoid is a situation whereby so many concessions are sought by Sinn Fein the SDLP and indeed the justice minister, that the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland is made so weak that its effectiveness is compromised.”
But Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan said that by backing the Westminster NCA legislation as it currently stands “the Assembly would be handing over primacy for fighting organised and serious crime to an unaccountable agency”.
He said: “The British Home Secretary would appoint the NCA director-general who would be accountable only to the British Home Secretary.
“How the NCA would operate and its governance and accountability arrangements will be issued by the British Home Secretary, the Department of Justice will be consulted but agreement is not required.
“The way the legislation reads at the minute would give Westminster licence to exercise powers already transferred on policing and justice under terms of the Good Friday, St Andrews and Hillsborough Agreements.”
He added: “Sinn Fein recognises the imperative of co-operation between different agencies to combat organised crime but we will not accept two-tier and unaccountable policing that supercedes the authority of the current policing structures.”