Facing the challenge of tackling organised crime

 

Peter Mandelson has recently spoken of "the dark side of Northern Ireland" - what Mr David Trimble sometimes calls "the mafia society." So what is the Secretary of State's assessment of the state of paramilitary-controlled organised crime?

"We shouldn't exaggerate it, shouldn't get it out of perspective," he says. "We're not America, we're not Sicily, we're not any of a whole number of desperate situations where the rule of law has broken down . . . We don't have a mafia but we have a mafia-like virus, the residue of 30 years of conflict, in which paramilitary organisations used the pretext of the absence of acceptable politics and political institutions as justification for their activities."

Looking beyond the current debate about police structures, the Secretary of State continues: "I think that extinguishing paramilitary organised crime, banishing it finally from our society, is the next great challenge that faces us all. I am determined the government will play its part in achieving that. I feel passionately about this. Anyone who lives in and cares about Northern Ireland, anyone who is as deeply absorbed by its affairs as I have become, can't fail to be agitated by this spectre of paramilitarism."

Mr Mandelson rejects suggestions that prisoner releases have fuelled gangsterism and violence, insisting that people generally most supportive of the peace process can be found among those who have benefited from the early release programme: "So we should be careful about sweeping generalisations or the categorisation of people, because it can lead you to wrong conclusions and bad policies."

But does he understand the fear many people have that there is a moral vacuum at the core of this process - specifically that these paramilitary criminal empires are going to be institutionalised as part of the new dispensation?

"That's nonsense," he asserts. "We're creating the conditions in which we can wean people away from violence and paramilitarism towards politics, and creating the institutions and climate in which people decide to pursue their objectives by peaceful, democratic means."

Many on the estates and in the back-streets would challenge Mr Mandelson's description of the "transformation" that has already taken place. People say a massive drug problem is proliferating, and doing so under paramilitary control.

Mr Mandelson accepts "there are people who appear to believe paramilitaries can continue in these activities, whether it's punishment beatings, intimidation, racketeering or drugs . . . that it's business as usual, even after the conflict is over".

But isn't it?

"It's not going to be business as usual," says Mr Mandelson, insisting that the prosecution of such activities will remain a priority for government.

"In the last 30 years, as so much energy and resources have been consumed in the war against terrorism, we have been less able to concentrate on the other ugly side of the illegal fund-raising, smuggling, racketeering, intimidation, embezzlement that has been going on . . . all of which have been part and parcel of the terrorist war which we have now got to concentrate our sights on."

Insisting there will be "no immunities, no alibis, no justifications, nobody exonerated", Mr Mandelson says: "The peace process is not a tolerance of these things, it creates the opportunity for us to mobilise the whole community to eradicate those last unacceptable vestiges of paramilitary activity."

And he flatly rejects suggestions, from within rival loyalist camps and elsewhere, that the police turn a blind eye to significant drug-trafficking for reasons of peace politics: "It's rubbish. It doesn't take place."

A former head of the RUC Drug Squad suggested that former paramilitaries could become major players in the drug trade in Britain. Does he share that fear?

"If the threat exists there will be a response," he replies, reminding those impatient for changes in policing that "in the meantime, the police have to get on with policing Northern Ireland."

Patience is a big Mandelson theme: "If you look at what we've gone through, and how far we've come since the peace process began, you should take pride and satisfaction in what has been achieved, but also be realistic about how each stage of that process exposes new questions, fresh issues," he says.

"It's like one of those Russian dolls, as we answer one question we find another one underneath . . ."