Northern Ireland news

Unexplained wealth orders needed to tackle paramilitary gangs

Members of the Independent Reporting Commission Tim O'Connor, Mitchell Reiss, Monica McWilliams and John McBurney

UNEXPLAINED wealth orders should be extended to Northern Ireland to help in the fight against ongoing paramilitary activity, a report has said.

The latest publication by the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) also argues that a bespoke civil recovery organisation such as the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) - which targets organised criminality in the Republic - would "significantly enhance the law enforcement response in Northern Ireland".

The report warns that the political vacuum at Stormont, Brexit uncertainty and the legacy debate has made ending paramilitarism "immeasurably more difficult".

An increase in dissident republican activity, along with loyalist unrest at the possibility of a 'sea border' as part of the UK's withdrawal from the EU, has raised tensions and made it harder to convince organisations to disband their structures.

The commissioners reiterated their analysis from their first report last October that ending paramilitarism "can only be sustainably brought about by means of a twin track approach, which combines policing and justice responses alongside systemically tackling the serious socio-economic deprivation facing the communities where the paramilitaries operate".

They said this wider look at tackling the causes of paramilitarism, alongside an enhanced criminal justice approach, must be part of a new programme for government.

The commission is made up of John McBurney and Monica McWilliams, who were nominated by the Northern Ireland Executive, Irish government nominee Tim O'Connor and Mitchell Reiss, nominated by the UK Government.

They are tasked with reporting annually to the British and Irish governments and the Executive.

Mr McBurney, a solicitor, said the National Crime Agency (NCA) - currently responsible for asset recovery - is not properly resourced to deal with the type of "badged" criminality being carried out by paramilitary groups.

"A bespoke local agency could lower the bar in terms of when they will move against an asset and lift relatively modest amounts. That is important to show the community that these people do not have a fence around them - they are not untouchable," he said..

Mr McBurney also said that organised crime legislation to "debadge the criminal elements" and cover offences that carry deterrent sentences is important.

"Speeding up justice by removing committal proceedings would help with public confidence," he added.

"The problem is without an executive putting a bill like that through Westminster would be viewed as direct rule."

Mr McBurney said some factions of loyalism had already "morphed into something less militaristic, old boys type networks".

"But now we have to get to a point that they put beyond use all weaponry, stop recruitment and allow members who want to leave to do so without retribution - stop calling people brigadiers, commandeers and volunteers," he said.

"This all should have been historical many years back, instead we held the notion that it would wither away, when realistically that was never going to happen."

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