Almost 140 crime gangs in North, says Minister for Justice

Executive determined to ‘rid Northern Ireland of the scourge of paramilitarism’

Northern Ireland Minister for Justice Claire Sugden said  there had been successes  against gangs which comprise groups such the Ulster Volunteer Force (East Belfast mural above), the Ulster Defence Association, republican dissident groups and some eastern European gangs. File photograph: Getty Images

Northern Ireland Minister for Justice Claire Sugden said there had been successes against gangs which comprise groups such the Ulster Volunteer Force (East Belfast mural above), the Ulster Defence Association, republican dissident groups and some eastern European gangs. File photograph: Getty Images

 

Close to 140 organised crime gangs, many of them with paramilitary connections, are now operating in Northern Ireland, according to the PSNI and Northern Ireland Minister for Justice Claire Sugden.

Ms Sugden said the Northern Executive was determined to “rid Northern Ireland of the scourge of paramilitarism” when she launched a new anti-crime advertising campaign at Stormont on Monday.

There would be “no quick fixes” to the problem, she said, with an estimated 138 criminal gangs operating in the North - of which 67 are under active investigation.

Gangs were involved in a wide range of activity that was yielding them “tens of millions of pounds” each year.

Ulster Volunteer Force

She pointed to a number of successes in the fight against gangs which comprise groups such the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defence Association, republican dissident groups and some eastern European gangs involved in drugs, human trafficking and other criminal activity.

According to the latest report from the North’s Organised Crime Task Force, in the past year 28 gangs were “dismantled”, with 96 gangs having been “frustrated or disrupted”.

There were 5,597 drugs seizures, 366,535 litres of fuel seized and 12 laundering plants broken down, 59 potential victims of human trafficking recovered and £1.6 million of criminal assets seized.

Ms Sugden, an Independent unionist and the only non-DUP or non-Sinn Féin Minister in the Executive, said the numbers involved and the extent of the crime demonstrated how much needed to be done to get on top of the criminal gangs.

“I firmly believe that the paramilitary groups that we are working to disband are in reality nothing more than criminal gangs who continue to exert control over our communities, who inflict violence, hurt and fear through a wide range of criminal activity,” she said.

Ms Sugden said their activities “undermine our society”, and that people should be aware that “if you buy even one counterfeit top, or one bottle of fake perfume, you are unwittingly funding the work of organised crime groups”.

“People in Northern Ireland need to make a choice: turn a blind eye to criminality, or take a stand and say no to those who are set on inflicting harm on our communities,” she said.

Garda co-operation

PSNI Det Supt Gary Reid said there was very much a cross-Border element to crime and that the PSNI co-operates with the Garda to combat it.

He said buying counterfeit or stolen goods was not a “harmless” crime. “There are real victims and consequences of people’s actions in buying such products.

“It does help fund organised crime which in turn causes misery to the whole community,” he added.

Loyalist dispute

As an example of how paramilitary crime causes fear and disruption in ordinary communities, the PSNI confirmed it had so far cost £1.6 million to police a loyalist dispute in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim.

PSNI assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin told the most recent meeting of the North’s Policing Board that he was worried someone might “end up hurt or dead” because of the dispute.

The row springs from tensions involving the southeast Antrim brigade of the UDA. Since May this year, 17 people had been arrested as a result of the feud and nine people were charged.

The officer said the arrests related to drugs, intimidation and weapons possession. He said police searches had led to the recovery of two handguns, cocaine, fireworks and more than £5,000 in cash.

Mr Martin said police were needed to police the feud because the potential for violence was “extremely high”.

Calling for local mediation, he said there was no obvious criminal justice resolution to the problem.