Failure to grant the National Crime Agency (NCA) full powers in Ulster is tantamount to inviting major criminals to set up shop in the Province.
That is the striking claim made during a debate on the NCA in Stormont yesterday, as MLAs once more appeared divided along unionist-nationalist lines over how it should function in Ulster.
Sometimes likened to a UK version of the FBI, the force replaces the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), and it was even suggested yesterday that it could end up opening an office in Dublin.
But while it is already up-and-running its scope is limited in Ulster, where it can only handle non-devolved matters amid fears from nationalist MLAs over how accountable a fully-running NCA would be.
The DUP’s Jonathan Craig said because of this “prevarication”, Ulster is now left without the benefit of either SOCA or a fully-functioning NCA.
“The one area that is dramatically missing in the jigsaw of tackling serious crime and organised crime in our society is the assets recovery,” he said.
“Why has anyone allowed themselves to get into the position where that tool in the armoury of the police force of Northern Ireland is no longer there? What are we trying to say to the criminal fraternity out there?” asked Mr Craig.
He warned Ulster is now “inviting” them in with the message: “Northern Ireland’s a great place for you to do business, because quite frankly it’s the one place where they’ll never get at your assets.”
There are now several cases where assets should be recovered, he said, but in the present situation it cannot happen.
It was suggested the lack of NCA powers hinder the fight against the sex trade, cyber-crime and human traffickers.
Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane said: “For anyone to use the floor of this Assembly to foment public panic about sex crime and child abuse is an abhorrence.”
Justice Minister David Ford stressed there was a real need for the NCA, and he proposed it would be accountable via the Policing Board and Police Ombudsman, with the PSNI retaining primacy.
Amendments were tabled, one from the SDLP concerning the alleged accountability failures, and another from the UUP, calling on Westminster to simply grant full power to the NCA directly. Both failed.
The main motion, pledging to work to ensure there are no further delays in extending the NCA’s power, passed unamended by 49 votes to 38.