Fears about NCA are not without foundation

Posted By: February 05, 2015

Allison Morris. Irish News ( Belfast). Thursday, February 5, 2015

IN A flurry of political activity this week the National Crime Agency was given the green light to operate fully in Northern Ireland. 

The agency, set up in 2010 by the British home secretary, has both national and international reach. 

During an assembly debate on Tuesday it was claimed that there are upwards of 400 criminal gangs operating in Northern Ireland. As someone who has covered crime and security for many years I can assure you, before you all retreat to a nuclear bunker in terror, the word ‘gang’ is being loosely applied. 

While there are gangs operating in the north you’d be hard pushed to call more than 50 of them even remotely organised. 

Two boys armed with a baseball bat does not a gang make. 

Concerns about the operational accountability of the NCA was, like everything else in Northern Ireland, divided on lines of green and orange. 

Both the SDLP and Sinn Féin had expressed concerns about accountability or lack of. 

There were fears raised about a ‘force within a force’. 

Given the history of policing in the north those fears are not without foundation. 

No right-thinking person would argue with the need for a more experienced international force to deal with issues such as drug smuggling and people trafficking. 

The NCA is already working in the north in this capacity and this paper has covered several cases in which the organised crime agency has been directly involved in operations tackling alleged international drug smuggling. 

Groups made up of a mix of both foreign and local criminals have also been exploiting Ireland’s border to smuggle drugs and for the transportation of stolen high-performance vehicles and other revenue-avoidance scams. 

Whether the PSNI has the experience or resources to tackle cross-border crime is no longer an issue. 

After Tuesday’s majority passing of a private member’s bill approving the full implementation of the NCA, the organisation will be working alongside the PSNI by May. 

We will now have to judge it by its actions. The problem is, should the NCA fall short of expectations it cannot simply be sent packing again. 

The SDLP told the assembly this week it had achieved concessions that meant they felt they could now support the NCA bill. 

And it’s true the crime-fighting organisation will now be accountable to the Policing Board and Police Ombudsman. 

The ombudsman has agreed to this measure, although given the already slashed budget of his office it remains to be seen how this will work in practice or whether additional money will be made available. 

The NCA will be permitted to run agents or informers but such action must be signed off by an assistant chief constable. 

These accountability measures are essential for public confidence. Given the enormous policing reform that took place with the change from RUC to PSNI under Patten, anything else would be a regressive step. 

But even with built-in accountability there comes risk. We now know hundreds of former RUC officers were rehired by the PSNI after taking their huge redundancy payments right under the nose of the Policing Board. 

Sinn Féin was the only party to continue to express concerns about the passing of the bill. 

It’s easy to snipe from the sidelines and say this is simply a hangover from the past and a party whose members are traditionally suspicious of all aspects of law enforcement. But it’s worth taking a step back to consider the potential pitfalls of this all-singing-and dancing elite agency. 

The running of informers by its very nature is a covert operation. In order for that person to successfully infiltrate the gang under investigation it stands to reason that he or she must be involved in their activities. 

Informers in the main are paramilitary figures or criminals. 

It is almost impossible to properly monitor or hold them to account. 

The legislation as it stands will allow the Home Secretary to extend the remit of the NCA to cover counter-terrorism without the need to consult either the devolved institutions or even Westminster. 

Justice minister David Ford said on Tuesday that he had been assured by the Secretary of State this wouldn’t be the case but that sounds like nothing more than a verbal assurance that can be retracted just as easily as it was given. 

Given the murderous history of informers in Northern Ireland it’s easy to see why there are those who still harbour concerns. 

Can the NCA fully be held to account? 

We’re about to find out.