Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Association of Chief Police Officers


  The fluctuating fiscal situation between the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland has provided a source of income for some who live in the vicinity of the land border that has existed between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland since 1921. The border has been exploited in the words of one author by "working each side to the middle and paying no one.[1]"

  It is a well-recorded fact that this manner of income benefits the personal lifestyles of many individuals associated with paramilitary activity in the region. Consequently, paramilitary organisations have become increasingly reliant on this form of income as it offers greater potential for profit than support-group activity, and similar profits to more overt forms of criminal activity such as robbery and the supply of drugs, but with less risk.

  Northern Irish paramilitaries, and their colleagues based in the Republic of Ireland, favour the tax evasion profits gained from illicit dealing in tobacco, alcohol, road fuel and counterfeit goods. For the purposes of this paper these commodities will be jointly referred to as "contraband goods", and the tax evasion activities as "smuggling".

  The Police Service of Northern Ireland and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise are better placed to outline the extent of such activity in Ireland. However, it is interesting to note and compare the Northern Ireland Organised Crime Task Force Threat Assessment[2] and the National Criminal Intelligence Service UK Threat Assessment[3]. Both point towards the increasing influence of organised crime groups in such activity, including paramilitary links in the Northern Ireland context. NCIS estimates for the United Kingdom as a whole that 19 per cent of all identified organised crime groups are engaged in excise fraud and that 21 per cent of drug trafficking gangs also engage in excise evasion through smuggling where profits are similar, but the risks in terms of penalties are less.


  The market places of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland are not sufficient to sustain such contraband goods activity. Already it is assessed that Northern Ireland (population 1.7 million) has reached saturation point for illicit fuel. Legal fuel deliveries, for instance, have fallen by 50 per cent since 1994, despite an increase of 20 per cent more vehicles on the road. The criminal activity has by necessity expanded to the broader market places of Great Britain (population 58 million) and potentially to all of Europe (700 million).

  To those engaged in "smuggling" and "contraband goods" activity the role of the British mainland has developed from being the land-bridge between mainland Europe and Ireland to being both the processing area and market place for such goods. Diesel, for instance, is obtained, laundered and traded by groups in Great Britain with links to Irish paramilitaries without the need for the commodity to touch Ireland. Tobacco and alcohol likewise may only involve the United Kingdom and third countries not including Ireland.

  Mainland based criminal networks, familiar with local supply and distribution, are recruited to assist the criminal activities of Irish paramilitaries. Presumably, the profit-making opportunities outweigh any sense of outrage caused by terrorist activity in Great Britain. This may be symptomatic of the fear engendered by suspected links with terrorism, or may be due to the fact that to date the Real IRA attacks in GB have been sporadic and have not succeeded in causing serious injury. Either way, the availability to terrorists of networks designed and practised in the clandestine movement and distribution of contraband goods and people across borders is one of great concern to police in Great Britain.

  There are clear indications of the involvement of paramilitary figures being engaged in diesel laundering, tobacco and alcohol operations based on the British mainland. The ratio of criminal activity compared with direct terrorist activity, or the provision of funding to the terrorist groups or cells, is likely to be small. The profit from such activity dwarfs the cost of conducting terrorism, and the illicit operations themselves effectively mask any direct or indirect involvement in terrorism.


  Police services on the British mainland follow the ACPO-led police national counter-terrorist strategy, which is based on Prevention, Proactivity and Post-incident investigation.

  Furthermore, the activities of mainland police as described below contribute towards the Strategic Priorities of the Northern Ireland Organised Crime Task Force.

  The current Real IRA (RIRA) campaign conmmenced its mainland phase in June 2000 with a bomb attack on Hammersmith Bridge followed by a further seven attacks culminating in the potentially deadly car bomb attacks in Ealing and Birmingham.

  Police recognised that the activities of the Real RIRA in particular were marked by the preoccupation of individual RIRA members with the types of criminal activity previously described. Opportunities were identified aimed at:

    —  disruption of dealing in contraband goods as a terrorist support activity

    —  disruption of such networks that may allow the movements of terrorist material or personnel

    —  provision of further intelligence opportunities.

  A National Special Branch counter RIRA strategy was launched in October 2000 with the Security Service and police forces nationally under the leadership of ACPO (Terrorism and Allied Matters) Committee, which included activity designed at attacking dissident smuggling.


  The attack on smuggling is truly multi-agency involving United Kingdom police forces including the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and also An Garda Sochana, the Security Service and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. Police activity is co-ordinated and supported by the Metropolitan Police Service Special Branch and the National Co-ordinator of Ports Policing.


  Intelligence developed by a number of police services throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland working together with the Security Services, HMCE and Ministry of Defence resulted in the interception of a lorry hauling a substantial quantity of cigarettes returning to Northern Ireland. It was suspected that a sizeable delivery to the British mainland had already taken place.

  A number of carefully targeted and co-ordinated operations have been conducted at all United Kingdom seaports covering specific periods of assessed heightened activity. This increased police/Customs activity was complemented inland by traffic police of various forces aimed at detecting displacement. It is assessed that this activity was instrumental, in support of other activity in the United Kingdom and Ireland, in preventing attacks on the British mainland both at Christmas 2000 and during the United Kingdom General Election period 2001.


    —  In excess of 1,300 target vehicles stopped and searched

    —  56 seizures of contraband goods

    —  19 vehicles impounded by HMCE

    —  90 drivers reported for offences

    —  25 arrests

    —  Two seizures of note included two million cigarettes concealed inside generators seized at Dover; 16,000 litres of sulphuric acid destined for a diesel laundering plant seized at Liverpool.

  Nationally, police services contribute to the provision of intelligence leads, often gained from their criminal investigation roles. They also assist Her Majesty's Customs and Excise to develop intelligence and execute actions against suspected smuggling activities throughout Great Britain.


  A diesel laundering facility jointly raided by HMCE and police recovered 30,000 litres of illegal diesel and washing agents.

  An illicit alcohol bottling plant raided by HMCE recovered 18,000 litres of illicit alcohol being prepared for distribution in England.

  Two lorries intercepted on successive days in northern England led to the recovery of 11 million cigarettes concealed within legitimate loads.

  Metropolitan Police Special Branch Financial Investigation and Special Access Unit (FISAC) has a close working relationship with the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the investigation of terrorist funding, specifically where it applies to the British mainland. Identified terrorist funding is investigated, where appropriate bringing together the joint forces of FISAC, Anti-terrorist branch, Police Service of Northern Ireland, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, regional police forces and others as appropriate.


  In the case of the Irish related terrorism Metropolitan Police Special Branch maintains, in conjunction with the Security Service, a pre-emptive national counter-terrorist role, in support of all other United Kingdom police forces.[4] Consequently, a squad of officers dedicated to the investigation of intelligence leads and co-ordination of national strategy exists and works in close partnership with the Security Service. The Metropolitan Police Service Anti-terrorist branch comprises experienced criminal investigators dedicated to the investigation of terrorist offences in London and elsewhere in Great Britain as required.

  All United Kingdom police forces have Special Branches of varying sizes working in support of national strategies. Information relating to the fundraising activities of terrorists is shared broadly within police forces, particularly those methods of fundraising outlined in this report, where the activity can potentially come to the notice of police in the ordinary course of their duties.

  The national counter RIRA strategy has involved police officers beyond those dedicated to such specialist areas of operation. Information is actively sought and acted upon from criminal investigators and uniform patrolling officers. Likewise, traffic police are utilised in the disruption activities against suspected transportation of contraband goods resulting in many seizures throughout Great Britain.

  The powers available to Her Majesty's Customs and Excise in terms of issuing penalties, confiscation of vehicles and assets and initiating criminal proceedings tend to be appropriate to the majority of the offences detected. However, the powers to investigate and bring proceedings under the Terrorism Act 2000 where the links to terrorism can be proved are considered where appropriate.


  Much has already been said about the high levels of co-operation that exist between police on the British mainland and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, An Garda Sochana, the Security Service, and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. Relationships also exist among many other agencies who provide excellent support to police initiatives including the Ministry of Defence.

  The Metropolitan Police Service is not presently represented on the Northern Ireland Organised Crime Task Force, although the Special Branch counter RIRA strategy that it promulgates, demonstrably supports the strategic priorities of that group.


  In relation to Great Britain, Irish terrorist fundraising mainly manifests itself in the form of "smuggling" and the dealing in "contraband goods". This activity is most evident among Irish republican groups. It is identified as a particular hallmark of dissident republicans, specifically the Real IRA, from whom emanates our highest current terrorist threat. Police activity on the British mainland, in partnership with other agencies, actively contributes to the investigation and disruption of "smuggling" and dealing in "contraband goods" and goes some considerable way to enhancing the security of the mainland. Our activities are focused on combating the financing of Irish related terrorism, disrupting the activities of organised criminals in Great Britain and Ireland, and maintaining the security of mainland Great Britain. As such we believe that we make a valuable contribution towards the Strategic Priorities of the Northern Ireland Organised Crime Task Force and the Metropolitan Police Service would welcome an invitation to support this work as a fully participating partner.

  The criminality described in this paper is not solely used for the funding of terrorism. Particularly in the case of dissident republicans it is the main means of income for many of those who are also involved in terrorism. It begs the question whether the criminal enterprise would be as successful without the intimidating background of terrorism.

  The nature of the criminal offences, based around tax evasion, is often viewed as victimless in the communities which deal in "contraband goods". The consequent "normalisation" of such crime as experienced to an extent in Northern Ireland, presents its own challenges. As seen in this paper the criminal conspirators are immune to the terrorist activities of their new partners in crime. If the Northern Ireland experience is repeated in Great Britain, intimidation and a degree of "licensing" by paramilitaries could follow.

  It is essential for the security of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for mainland police to engage in activity that frustrates, detects and punishes "smuggling" and dealing in "contraband goods". The efforts of police, Security Service and Customs are directed at this problem and work effectively, although other organisational priorities such as the international terrorist threat, public fears of crime and revenue recovery need to be addressed concurrently, and place inevitable strains on resources.

  Given the personal enrichment involved, evidential proof that terrorism lies at the receiving end of at least part of such funds may not always be convincing. The penalties imposed for such offences should therefore reflect those of other serious crime to ensure that raising funds through smuggling, particularly where linked to paramilitaries, is not seen as a "low risk, high gain strategy".

  Finally, it is worthy of noting that the vast majority of cigarettes and fuel "smuggled" come from legitimate and not counterfeit stocks. We would welcome the opportunity to develop further effective partnerships with suppliers aimed at identifying disparities of distribution caused in legitimate markets with a view to preventing the threat caused, not only to economic well being of the country, but also to national security.

January 2002

1   Toby Harnden, "Bandit Country", Hodder & Stoughton, 1999. Back

2   Northern Ireland Organised Crime Task Force Threat Assessment, 2001. Back

3   NCIS Threat Assessment, May 2000. Back

4   Report of working group to review the work of Special Branches in Great Britain, 1994. Back

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