The man who was responsible for going after criminal assets has said that he believes the Labour Government “misled” him and that his job was axed in an attempt to protect the peace process.
Alan McQuillan, who was head of the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) until it was wound up in 2008, said that he now believes that if groups such as the IRA and the UVF were engaged in crime the attitude was “so what?”.
The former assistant chief constable said that he was not surprised by the suggestion in this week’s paramilitary report that some Provisional IRA members are linked to dissident republicans.
On Tuesday, former First Minister Lord Trimble and former Assembly Speaker Lord Hay expressed concern that Provisional IRA criminality is being used to fund Sinn Fein, helping to make it the richest party in the Province.
When asked about those concerns, Mr McQuillan told the News Letter: “Conveniently, the Assets Recovery Agency was abolished.
“In my view, looking back, I think we were misled so that nothing would upset the peace process .
“It was when the Government wanted to encourage people along a peaceful path – and if that involved crime on the way, so what? That was seen as the better option.”
The UK-wide body reported to the Home Secretary and had 50 staff in Belfast.
Less than a year after the DUP and Sinn Fein entered government together in 2007, the Assets Recovery Agency was dissolved.
At the time it was merged into the Serious and Organised Crime Agency – which now is part of the National Crime Agency – and the Government assured the public that there would be no loss of operational effectiveness.
Mr McQuillan said that the biggest issue following this week’s report is political.
“If what the report says is correct - and I don’t doubt it - that Sinn Fein is run by the [IRA] Army Council, then are voters happy to vote for an organisation when the people who are fronting for the organisation are not those taking the big decisions?”
He said that Northern Ireland needed to “confront and deal with” organised crime, much of which is perpetuated by paramilitary groups.
He said that while the focus this week has been on Provisional IRA criminality, there are serious issues with loyalist criminality.
He said that the “culture in unionist politics has been to ignore the organised crime of loyalist paramilitaries who are a blight on their communities, through crime such as drug dealing and extortion”.
Mr McQuillan also said he believed that this week’s surprisingly blunt report was only published in the form which it was because there is now a Conservative government.
“If we had a Labour government - certainly the Blair government - it would never have seen the light of day.
“It’s a positive for the future that it has been published in this way.”
However, Mr McQuillan said bleakly that he feared that “with all the vested interests - on both sides - I don’t see them having any interest in changing this. That is a huge problem for us as a society”.
And the security expert said he was not surprised that the report hints at links between some Provisional IRA members and dissident republicans - despite Martin McGuinness’s vocal denunciation of dissidents as “traitors to the island of Ireland”.
The report said that “members of the PIRA have been directed to become involved in the politics of the Provisional movement. Most have nothing to do with dissident paramilitary groups”, a phrase which suggests that some PIRA members are associated with dissidents.
“I would be very surprised if there weren’t links,” he said.
“The whole republican project has often been based on big family clans where whole generations are involved and in changing times may have different loyalties so you have the overlap between the loyalty to the organisation and the loyalty to the family.
“You will therefore get circumstances where people are linked to two groups.”