How the rebels turned to rackets as a cause
DRUMCREE is expected to be quiet this year. The Orangemen’s annual march on Sunday - for years a flashpoint for riots, standoffs and political poison - should be a damp squib, despite them being banned again from the Catholic Garvaghy Road.
To outsiders, this apparent breakthrough in Portadown appears to be a peace dividend. To those living in Northern Ireland, it is simply depressing proof that the paramilitaries, who once backed the violence at Drumcree, are changing tack, rather like their former republican enemies: the rebels have become full-time racketeers.
Extortion and loan-sharking have long been the unreported sideline to bombing and maiming; the so-called victimless crimes. But since the Good Friday agreement, it has mushroomed into a 18 million-a-year industry.
The police cannot control it. There is also a dim sense that the authorities are only too willing to turn a blind eye to some of the terrorists’ activities, fearful that a heavy hand might shatter the fragile peace.
The House of Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee warned yesterday that loyalist and republican paramilitaries are expanding their lucrative empires. Next stop for their Mafia-type activities? Britain.
Smuggling routes once used for guns are now filled with bootlegged alcohol, tens of thousands of stolen cigarettes and fake Levi jeans. Fuel is a big earner, being so much cheaper in the Irish Republic.
The old terrorist dynamics have been turned on their head. The quest for profit has led the IRA and loyalists to join forces to conduct smuggling operations, the MPs suggest.
Grainy pirate videos of Moulin Rouge and Harry Potter sold on the streets of Belfast have raised nearly 1 million for the Provos alone. The loyalists, the report says, are making 400,000 from selling counterfeits. Rather than sell the goods, the committee said, the IRA prefers to use its gun-smuggling expertise to source them from other countries and wholesale them to petty crooks. This way, it keeps a distance.
Underworld violence has rocketed. Armed robberies trebled last year, while hijackings doubled, the committee found. More than 80 per cent of extortion rackets are now linked to paramilitaries.
Some groups - particularly the Real IRA - are infuriated that their ability to threaten and exploit the economic marketplace on the island has reached its limits. Police now estimate that up to 80 per cent of the Real IRA’s activity in Britain is now linked to "ordinary crime" rather than terrorism.
The committee said: "A particularly vicious strain of organised crime has flourished in Northern Ireland in recent years, some of which is now being exported to and taking root in other parts of the UK. We know that many people believe that the peace process has put an end to terrorism in, or originating from, Northern Ireland. The citizens of Northern Ireland know this is not the case."
The report details a very serious business. It says that the Provisional IRA - the most sophisticated of the paramilitary groups - is said to employ professional accountants to ensure its profits from racketeering are maximised.
And the terrorists are growing ever more bold. The days of demanding 20 or 50 a week from small, local retailers on the Shankill or Falls Roads - nominally to "support families of prisoners" - are over.
These days Northern Ireland’s racketeers think nothing of extorting monthly sums of 200,000 from multinationals lured to Northern Ireland by the attractive inward investment benefits gifted by the government.
The report states: "Although this is known by the police, extortion in Northern Ireland continues to be largely a hidden problem and is a major cause for concern. Former terrorists have used their status, connections and skills in creating and developing criminal organisations and structures. These arrangements provide the resources for comfortable - and in some cases very extravagant - personal lifestyles."
Fear is the terrorist-turned-racketeer’s main weapon of choice. It is a weapon that has been finely honed by nearly 30 years of the terrorist threat.
The astonishing growth in racketeering is having a debilitating effect on the economy - threatening many other businesses in Britain, most especially petrol stations.
As organised crime takes root and petrol smuggling and diesel laundering becomes commonplace, it creates a black economy that wrecks everything in its path, with the report citing peoples’ willingness to turn a blind eye to racketeering. Officers from Customs and Excise estimate that out of the 700 filling stations that remain in business, nearly 250 sell only or mostly illegal fuel - while more than half have some kind of involvement in illegal trade. Some 150 stations, the committee was told, have shut down because bootleg fuel has such a strong hold on the market. All of this is being conducted in an environment left almost unchecked by security forces because they are starved of cash by the government.
Ministers have announced plans to seize the assets of criminal racketeers who fund Northern Ireland’s paramilitaries, but the report found this is under threat because of a dire lack of resources.
All underlined the need for the government to provide the resources necessary to "root out" organised crime both in Northern Ireland and on the mainland.
The report said: "We urge HM Treasury to recognise that investing in action, not only against organised crime but against terrorism in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, would provide a strong financial return to the Exchequer and contribute to the establishment of a more honest and stable society."
The committee’s conclusion was simple: that the government must recognise how terrorism has mutated into racketeering - take the cash once devoted to military intelligence and use it to hunt the same enemies in the black market.
This is a message which it seems slow to learn. Of the 100 staff allocated to the Assets Recovery Agency, only ten are being devoted to Ulster.
The terrorists’ biggest blessing is how slow the government has been to keep pace. Last month, MI5 was lambasted by another Commons committee for being so preoccupied with Northern Ireland that it failed to spot Muslim extremists in the run-up to 11 September.
The same message was delivered yesterday. Fake videos and cheap petrol - not weapons and bombs - are now the poison of Northern Ireland.
Until the government recognises this new face of terrorism, the paramilitaries will continue to enjoy their own brand of the peace dividend.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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