THE arrest of five RUC officers following an alleged car fraud did not indicate a wider problem in the force, the Chief Constable claimed yesterday.
Mr Ronnie Flanagan was speaking after a number of early-morning raids in Fermanagh, Tyrone and Derry in which a total of 12 people were arrested. The five policemen include an inspector, and the other detainees are believed to be car dealers.
They were arrested after a 15-month investigation, led by an RUC detective superintendent, into second-hand car dealerships in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. The Garda is also believed to be involved in the investigation after gardai carried out raids some months ago and seized a number of vehicles, mainly Toyotas.
It has been suggested that up to 120 new cars, worth in the region of £2 million, were stolen and then "legitimised" through re-registering. About 20 RUC detectives have been involved in the investigation, which is expected to last a further six months. Most of the cars were purchased in the north of England, in Newcastle and Northumbria, but others are believed to have been obtained in London and parts of Scotland also.
Yesterday's raids began at 5 a.m. in Magherafelt, Co Derry, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, and Omagh and Castlederg in Co Tyrone. It is believed the arresting officers were told only minutes before which homes were to be raided.
The RUC in Derry gave few details about the arrests, a statement saying merely that the people were being questioned about "serious offences including deception and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice."
The statement continued: "The arrests follow a protracted inquiry by a special team of detectives and involve a number of towns throughout Northern Ireland. Those arrested include a number of serving police officers and car dealers in Cos Tyrone and Fermanagh."
It is understood the cars were bought in Britain and shipped to Northern Ireland. The mileage was then allegedly reduced and the vehicles sold off through hire-purchase arrangements.
There have also been unconfirmed reports that new cars were stolen in Britain, re-registered in Northern Ireland, re-registered again in the Republic and once again in Britain before being sold on. Neither the RUC nor the Garda could confirm this.
In April last year the Garda was involved with the RUC and Cumbrian police in an operation aimed at breaking a car-theft ring in Cumbria. Gardai seized 12 vehicles, mainly Toyotas, during raids in the Republic at unidentified locations.
On the same day, 50 policemen in Cumbria were involved in a one-day raid on premises in the west of the county and other areas in the north of England. They made a number of arrests and seized vehicles and other evidence.
Mr Flanagan was in London yesterday for discussions about the operation with British police. In an interview with PA he described the inquiry as "very specific".
"It has been protracted," he said. "It has been detailed, and there are now a number of people in custody that we have to interview in pursuance of that investigation. I am satisfied that this does not in any sense indicate a wider problem in the organisation."
He also rejected any suggestion of resistance within the RUC to the investigation.