Gangs responsible for an “epidemic” of fuel smuggling in south Armagh may be escaping jail for reasons of political expediency, a Stormont minister has claimed.
UUP Newry and Armagh representative Danny Kennedy has become the latest in a growing list of public figures to express concerns about the absence of custodial sentences for those convicted of fuel laundering – despite the substantial number of raids.
Mr Kennedy said he raised his concerns with senior PSNI commanders at a meeting on Friday.
“The scale of the problem is almost epidemic and I call on both the PSNI and HM Revenue and Customs to make an example of those responsible by court convictions, instead of allowing them to effectively ‘plea bargain’ their way out of justice,” he said.
“I recently met with desperately worried Protestant families in south Armagh who believe there is a very sinister element to the pattern of illegal dumping of diesel in the area. The diesel dumping sites were similar to the locations used to dump the bodies of IRA victims during the Troubles, a fact which is not lost on the local minority Protestant population.”
He added: “Arrests, though welcome, must be followed up with charges and convictions rather than allowing those responsible to negotiate and pay their way out of jail. There is an uneasy feeling within the local Protestant community that ‘political expediency’ is preventing the full rigour of justice from being applied, given the inevitable links the diesel operators have to republican paramilitaries.”
A spokesman for HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) said it does not negotiate justice outcomes.
“HMRC investigate suspected offences through criminal and civil interventions and report as appropriate to the Public Prosecution Service,” he said.
“Once reported, the outcome of the case is in the hands of the Public Prosecution Service and the judiciary.”
A PSNI spokeswoman said it “works closely” with the HMRC to tackle fuel laundering.
She added: “While the outcome of any criminal proceedings is a matter for other agencies, the PSNI is committed to detecting fuel smuggling and laundering.”
A spokeswoman for the Lord Chief Justice said: “The decision to prosecute and the detail of the charges is a matter for the Public Prosecution Service. Cases brought to court will be tried by the judiciary and sentences imposed purely in accordance with the law and commensurate with the overall circumstances of an offence.”