THE Real IRA is reaping in protection money from organised crime gangs engaged in the human slave trade and drug dealing, the PSNI have revealed.
The information came to light as the PSNI and Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) briefed MPs in Westminster on fuel laundering. Also raised were the increasingly close links between all types of organised crime – be it counterfeit goods, human trafficking, drug dealing, smuggling and defrauding the state of funds. Between 160 and 180 organised gangs across Northern Ireland are currently engaged in the various types of crime.
Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that while fuel fraud had historically been closely associated with the IRA, nowadays it was more closely linked to people who were “extracting salaries” to finance luxurious lifestyles. Improvised explosive devices are very cheap and don’t require large amounts of cash to make, he told MPs.
The RIRA has links with unaffiliated crime groups and smuggling activity and “would take protection fees on drug dealing and protection fees on prostitution and particularly when human trafficking is involved”, he said.
Detective Chief Superintendent Roy McComb said the current crime gangs are very fluid in their structures and regularly form “tactical alliances” to take advantage of particular skills of individuals for specific tasks.
He said they do use people from paramilitary backgrounds and that the resulting secrecy and professionalism make it even more difficult to track their activity.
“For the most part they are in it for personal gain but some money is making its way to paramilitary groups on both sides,” he said. PSNI relationships with HM Revenue Customs were “excellent” in dealing with “republican crime gangs”, he added. However, there is less paramilitary involvement now and more international involvement compared to 2005, with more and more “imported crime”.
The last 10 years have seen an influx of criminals involved in human trafficking and cannabis growing, from eastern Europe, Hungary, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Russia, Asia/China, with a large influence from Hong Kong. “The porous land border [with the Republic of Ireland] is a weakness we have to eradicate,” he said.
Asian crime gangs are being replaced by European gangs who are trafficking women into Ulster for the sex trade.
“Whether it is [illicit] fuel on the one hand or women on the other, people who are buying them are now part of the problem,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it is fuel, DVDs, tobacco or a girl you are buying – you are a part of the problem.”
Mr McComb said there were some 100 more crime gangs in Northern Ireland now than in 2002, although he said the changing definition of what constituted a gang may be a factor in the rise.
Mr Harris said police had put away some prolific offenders but due to a “revolving door” judicial system, they are out on the streets again this year.
Frustrated MPs repeatedly asked the PSNI and SOCA for figures to demonstrate their success in tackling fuel crime, however the police repeatedly said only HM Revenue and Customs – as the lead agency on fuel – had those figures.
In many areas, customs officers could operate with police – but not in south Armagh, the PSNI said.
MP Ian Paisley noted that the Republic of Ireland budget had put up VAT and duty on fuel which he said was going to create “a fuel smuggler’s bonanza”, but Mr Harris said they had been briefed on this in advance and related issues on cigarettes and alcohol.
Mr Paisley also drew attention to contrasts in sentencing in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where a man in Belfast got the same sentence for dropping a concrete block on a police officer as did people in England for “tapping letters into a keyboard” during the summer riots in London.
Mr Harris said there is almost “a societal acceptance” that PSNI officers will be injured out of their careers every summer. There is not much support from the community or criminal justice system in such cases, he said.