SF and SDLP stance on crime body criticised
Sinn Féin and the SDLP were subjected to heavy criticism in the Northern Assembly yesterday from unionist and Alliance politicians after employing a procedural device to oppose the establishment of the National Criminal Agency in Northern Ireland.
The new UK-wide policing agency, dubbed the “British FBI”, will replace the Serious Organised Crime Agency in October and will be answerable to British home secretary Theresa May.
It will tackle organised crime, police borders, fight fraud and cybercrime, protect children and young people, and combat human trafficking.
But Sinn Féin and the SDLP oppose the agency operating in the North because it will not be directly accountable to PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott and the North’s policing board.
Many of the powers that the agency will have in Britain are devolved to the Northern Assembly and it is up to this institution to allow the home secretary exercise that authority. These powers include agency officers having the authority of a police constable in the North, the right to carry out searches and make arrests and to conduct surveillance and recruit informers and agents and also to recover assets from criminals.
Sinn Féin and the SDLP lodged a petition of concern to ensure that a motion from Ulster Unionist MLAs Tom Elliott and Ross Hussey that would permit the agency to operate in the North could not be passed because it did not have sufficient cross-community support.
Mr Elliott said Sinn Féin and the SDLP were motivated by opposition to anything British in the North. “The current situation is exactly what we were wary of when we opposed the devolution of policing and justice . . . and it is with some regret that we have been proved right,” he said.
Agency director general Keith Bristow and the PSNI Asst Chief Constable with responsibility for tackling organised crime, Drew Harris, were at Stormont to reassure politicians about the agency.
‘Force outside a force’
SF MLA Gerry Kelly drew a parallel with how RUC special branch was viewed as a “police force within a force” and a fear that the agency would be a “force outside a force”.
SDLP Assembly member Alban Maginness argued that accountability would be under serious threat and that the party opposed this.
Minister of Justice David Ford said the North needed the agency to assist in the struggle against organised crime.