A member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has given a warm welcome to a new cross-border political probe into fuel fraud in south Armagh.
While joint PSNI-Garda operations have become more common along the border in recent years it is thought that this is the first time that members of the Westminster and Dublin upper houses have probed the illicit trade.
It has previously been estimated that border fuel smuggling costs the exchequer up to £140m in lost duty per year and that fuel laundering costs a further £245m. However, it is not known what the latest estimates are.
Yesterday it was revealed that senior conservative Viscount Bridgeman has been accompanied by Senator Paul Coghlan of Fine Gael and Jim Walsh of Fianna Fail to south Armagh as part of an inter-Parliamentary probe into the illicit trade along the border.
The three politicians are understood to be compiling a report for the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly for its next meeting later this month in Dublin.
The news has been warmly welcomed by Ian Paisley MP, who has for years taken a leading role in probing fuel fraud as a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC), which has filed a number of substantial reports on the matter.
While English MPs from the NIAC have previously flown over south Armagh by helicopter – and been reportedly stunned by the many luxurious houses – this is believed to be the first time that a British lord has set foot in south Armagh on official business.
Viscount Bridgeman, a Catholic, met senior gardai in Dundalk Station before meeting the PSNI at Crossmaglen barracks in south Armagh, according to the Sunday Independent yesterday.
The three Upper House members also took a tour of south Armagh and north Louth last Tuesday to see the trade in action.
Senator Coghlan, from Killarney, said they did not wish to discuss the likely outcome of their findings but confirmed the visit “was as part of our duties as members of Committee ‘A’ of the inter-parliamentary body dealing with matters of policing and illicit trade north and south”.
Mr Paisley said last night that “the political class both sides of the border is finally waking up to the scourge that organised crime has been to the border counties of Northern Ireland. With the National Crime Agency coming fully into operation in NI the cards of the criminals are well and truly marked.
“Where the political inquiry must now go in my view is to establish who knew what when it came to the operation of these criminals. Clearly blind eyes have been turned in allowing these parasites to operate above the law for so long.
“I hope that this joint inquiry will follow the evidence wherever it takes it.”
The News Letter has previously revealed that the Government had been involved in talks with a number of major fuel smugglers in south Armagh in order to ‘bring them in from the cold’.
This paper published a letter from then Northern Ireland Office Security Minister Paul Goggins in 2009 which showed he had been in protracted discussions on civil recovery with them.
The letter confirmed the minister was aware that Pastor Barrie Halliday attended a meeting with the Assets Recovery Agency and Newry solicitors in 2007 to discuss some of the biggest smugglers agreeing to a tax settlement.
In 2013 Justice Minister David Ford revealed that nobody had gone to prison for fuel laundering convictions in the previous five years in Northern Ireland.