Failure to accept an FBI-style crime fighting agency is bad news for Northern Ireland and leaves organised criminals free to exploit security gaps, the justice minister has warned.
David Ford said efforts to tackle child exploitation, cyber crime, asset recovery and drugs trafficking were severely curtailed because the new National Crime Agency (NCA), which assumes its powers today, was not fully operational in the region.
Venting frustration at political opposition to the NCA, Mr Ford claimed Northern Ireland was now viewed as the UK’s poor cousin when it comes to dealing with serious organised crime.
“We are left in a second class position,” he said.
As well as replacing the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), the new body incorporates the work of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop), and the national cyber crime unit. It will target major crime gangs operating over local, national and international borders.
But in Northern Ireland its powers have been restricted to non-devolved matters such as immigration.
One of the major concerns is that the region could now become an attractive location for organised criminals looking to hide their assets or the proceeds of crimes.
Mr Ford added: “At the moment Soca is largely responsible for the seizing of assets but there will be nobody with those powers in Northern Ireland as from today. And, while you may not be able to move a house from say, Manchester to Northern Ireland you could move a racehorse or a wodge of cash.
“My big fear is that we send out the wrong message that we are not fighting organised crime as effectively as other parts of the UK and we lose the UK national and international connections that NCA will have.”
Sinn Fein and the SDLP blocked a move to give the NCA full powers over fears it could lead to a parallel police force unaccountable to the Northern Ireland Policing Board.
However, the minister insists he has worked hard with the Home Office to secure stringent accountability mechanisms including a guarantee that the NCA would be answerable to the PSNI chief constable.
“The key issue is about recognising the primacy of the PSNI. Any operation by the NCA would have to be approved by the chief constable (and) that is completely at variance to what happens across the water where the NCA can task a chief constable what he has to do for them.
“That was a very significant change. Because our policing architecture is different and all of our accountability mechanisms are different and stronger we insisted that we get them [changes] carried through.
“I believe that we have got as good a system as you would want to see but, we haven’t yet got the agreement.”
Meanwhile, the PSNI, which is already under extreme budgetary and resourcing pressures because of ongoing flag and parade-related disputes, is facing further strain because the work of the NCA has been restricted.
Mr Ford said senior police officers had aired concerns at not being able to avail themselves of UK-wide resources.