Funds to tackle paramilitarism ‘blocked by British government'

UDA flags fly in west Belfast as it emerges that a fresh offensive would see the PSNI and An Garda Síochána work alongside the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) and HM Revenue & Customs. Picture by Mal McCann

MONEY to help the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) combat paramilitarism in the north is being blocked by the British government.

Funding was pledged by former secretary of state Theresa Villiers in September last year amid the fallout from the IRA murder of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast's Short Strand.

The commitment to crackdown on paramilitaries and organised crime with assistance from the NCA was underlined in November's Fresh Start agreement with extra money promised by the British government.

The fresh offensive would see the PSNI and An Garda Síochána work alongside the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) and HM Revenue & Customs.

Ms Villiers said in a statement in Westminster last year that she intended to "establish dedicated funding" to tackle criminality and organised crime associated with the north's paramilitary groups.

"It will support agencies to enhance specialist capabilities such as forensic accounting to strengthen their capacity to seize criminal assets," she said.

But a letter from the NCA's director general to the chairman of Stormont's justice committee reveals that a bid for the funds has stalled.

In the letter to DUP MLA Paul Frew from Lynne Owens, she said the NCA submitted a request for money in October last year on instructions from the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) but that uncertainty around Westminster's funding for elements of the Fresh Start agreement had seen the bid founder.

"We identified four areas where dedicated funding could be used to enhance the NCA's fight against serious and organised crime in Northern Ireland: civil recovery and tax, NCA investigations, NCA tactical and strategic intelligence support, and forensic accounting," Ms Owens wrote.

"Following the submission of the NCA bid, we were subsequently advised that our bid was removed from the process as the position in relation to funding Westminster bodies under Fresh Start was not fully confirmed."

The letter concludes that the NCA has had discussions with the NIO and Stormont's Department of Justice but that these have so far failed to break the funding impasse.

The revelation comes a week after the Stormont executive published its plan to tackle paramiltarism.

The  22-page document has been criticised by former justice minister David Ford for being vague.

On Tuesday night SDLP MLA Alex Attwood said the lack of funding from Westminster indicated that the British government was not serious about combating paramilitarism and organised crime.

"It is unacceptable that not a penny extra has been allocated to the National Crime Agency for its Northern Ireland work nine months since making their request and ten months since London said there would be new money," he said.

"The failure to find and release money raises again the question about the rigour of London in going after organised crime, including historic assets. 

"There has clearly been a lack of action – the issue is whether there is a lack of will."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has written to Stormont Justice Minister and Secretary of State James Brokenshire urging them to release the funds.

However, in a statement on Tuesday night the NIO insisted that the money would still be released.

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