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Ditching Assets Recovery Agency a shortsighted move - The Irish News
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Ditching Assets Recovery Agency a shortsighted move

Former senior RUC and PSNI officer Alan McQuillan was the Assets Recovery Agency's Northern Ireland director

Peter Robinson’s big idea to save Stormont is to resurrect the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) but as the danger from the IRA is now the size of its criminal empire - a fact acknowledged last week by the Irish government - it is a different quango from the last decade that is really required.

Between 2003 and 2008, the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) targeted paramilitary gangs in a manner not seen before or since.

During those years there was a perceptible shift in paramilitary and public attitudes as the ARA’s Northern Ireland director Alan McQuillan and his team of accountancy untouchables sent out a signal that crime might not always pay - a signal gleefully relayed by the Sunday tabloids as one shady character after another faced a financial reckoning. Loyalists were the most openly and entertainingly horrified (their brigadiers being the most bling) but republicans were equally, if more quietly, alarmed.

When the ARA raided the Manchester property portfolio of Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy in 2005, two months after the IRA announced an end to violence and two weeks after the IMC confirmed decommissioning, Gerry Adams denounced McQuillan as “very anti-republican”. A Sinn Fein whispering campaign then began against the “securocrat” ARA chief, who was a former RUC assistant chief constable.

However, that was not what caused the ARA’s downfall. The agency was a UK-wide operation set up to make a profit, by using civil recovery procedures to seize unearned assets. In the end this proved impractical because those targeted could challenge the ARA through the civil courts, where cases invariably dragged on for years. So while substantial assets were frozen pending legal rulings, the ARA could not seize them quickly enough to cover its own costs.

By 2007, the British government had lost faith in the profit-making model. The following year the ARA was merged with the new Serious Organised Crime Agency, since reconstituted as the National Crime Agency (NCA).

This was an incredibly short-sighted move, based on the ARA’s balance sheet in England and Wales with no regard for its disruptive potential against paramilitarism in Northern Ireland. The IMC continued to monitor crime until 2011 but political reaction to its reports inevitably focused on the immediate danger of violence rather than the long-term danger from money. In any case, the IMC could not confiscate anyone’s money.

Four months ago, the NCA became fully operational in Northern Ireland after the SDLP accepted extra accountability measures.

The NCA has more investigative and seizure powers than the ARA so in theory it should be at least as effective but in practice it is a very different organisation. Seizing assets was the sole purpose of the ARA, while the NCA has a huge remit with confiscation just one weapon in its armoury (hence its nickname of ‘the British FBI’.) If it is going to take on paramilitary empires in Northern Ireland that will require a specific, strategic and politically assertive decision to do so - and the PSNI will have to concur, as that is part of the oversight required by the SDLP.

It is too early to say if the NCA can make that decision but the omens are not encouraging. After two years of complaining about the agency coming to Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has suddenly stopped complaining, suggesting it believes it will have little to complain about, which by the unwritten law of balance means loyalists will have little to complain about either.

Instead, the NCA and its Stormont supporters have focused on the fashionable spectre of ‘human trafficking’. This may simply be spin to smooth the agency’s arrival in Northern Ireland but so far it has mostly and rather noticeably put foreign and non-paramilitary gangs in the frame. Are we developing the concept of ordinary decent organised crime?

The ARA was not a perfect solution to tackling paramilitary crime. Strictly speaking, as a civil recovery body, it was not a criminal solution at all. Its strategic priority was to pursue the most cost-effective operations, which must have sent difficult cases to the bottom of its in-tray. The loyalist feuds of the ARA’s heyday gave it a particularly vulture-like and after-the-fact appearance, as it swooped in on the tasteless mansions of the recently murdered. The point of paramilitary asset seizure should be preventing deaths, not profiting from them.

Nevertheless, for five years a decade ago, we accidentally hit on a highly promising approach to our lingering problem, then just as accidentally threw it away. Can anyone look at the official equivocations of the last two weeks and honestly hope the ARA’s shoes are about to be filled?


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