116.There are challenges posed by the UK’s loss of direct access to EU security and justice databases. But north-south co-operation between law enforcement agencies on the island of Ireland continues to be largely effective and there are opportunities to develop such co-operation further. Mark Larmour, Director, Northern Ireland Office explained that that co-operation rests on “pragmatic and strong working relationships” between law enforcement agencies, as well as on cross-border structures such as the Joint Agency Task Force, the Cross Border Strategy and the Annual Cross-Border Conference on Organised Crime. Those bodies are not subject to direct change as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU and their existence provides a platform on which to evolve UK-Irish policing, security and criminal justice co-operation. Before the reaching of the TCA and the European Commission’s announcement of draft data adequacy decisions, the PSNI told us that “with the provision of a suitable data adequacy position and the opportunity to take forward bilateral arrangements between [the] UK and Ireland we believe there are significant opportunities to develop new approaches”.
117.In December 2015, under the provisions of Fresh Start Agreement reached between the UK and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive, the cross-border Joint Agency Task Force was established as part of “a concerted and enhanced effort to tackle cross-jurisdictional organised crime”. The Joint Agency Taskforce is led by senior officials from the PSNI, An Garda Síochána, HMRC and the Irish Revenue Commissioners. Several other bodies, including the National Crime Agency and the Irish Criminal Assets Bureau, are sometimes involved in operational activity of the Task Force. The Task Force meets biannually at a strategic level and includes a Strategic Oversight Group and an Operations Co-ordination Group.
118.We heard from Mark Larmour, Director, Northern Ireland Office, how the work of the Joint Agency Task Force, along with the Organised Crime Task Force, had improved the agility of the criminal justice response on the island of Ireland. He told us that those structures had helped to support and grow day-to-day co-operation between law enforcement agencies north and south of the border. PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne agreed that the Task Force had enhanced day-to-day policing co-operation by providing a forum for UK and Irish law enforcement agencies to work on “key themes such as the transportation of drugs, financial crime and rural crime”.
119.The UK-Irish Criminal Justice Co-operation Network stated that the Joint Agency Task Force would “become increasingly important after Brexit”. Simon Byrne told us that he and the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris had discussed how to improve the Joint Agency Task Force after Brexit.
120.PSNI Assistant Chief Constable, Mark McEwan updated the Committee in January 2021 that the PSNI was “in discussions about increasing the tempo of the strategic-level meetings” following the end of the transition period. He also informed us that through the Organised Crime Task Force a subgroup has been formed that reports to Joint Agency Task Force “on EU exit and potential criminality, called Operation Fusion. That is up and running, and we had a number of operations running prior to the transition date”.
121.In November 2020, Minister Walker said the Government “would continue to work bilaterally with the Irish to see how things could be improved through things like the Joint Agency Task Force” from 1 January 2021 onwards. He added that it was “important to recognise that this is one of a number of institutions and vehicles enabling co-operation between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána, which will not be affected by the process of EU exit”. Speaking in March 2021, Mark Larmour told the Committee that the Joint Agency Task Force was “still very effective”. He added that “there is a wide range of measures that are well bedded in...to ensure co-operation [between UK and Irish law enforcement agencies]. Those have not been affected in any way by recent developments.”
122.The work of the cross-border Joint Agency Task Force to tackle cross-border crime remains important. At a strategic level, the Task Force should meet quarterly rather than biannually, or as operational necessities warrant.
123.The PSNI proposed developing “a bespoke centre of excellence relating to crime co-operation and co-ordination” for Northern Ireland. It told us that the “appropriate integration of operational and investigative collaboration across a range of agencies and remits would enhance existing capacity and capability based on the traditional collaborative “taskforce” model”.
124.Simon Byrne pointed out that a centre of excellence for Northern Ireland could be established by “building on the model that we see in Scotland, where we bring agencies together under one roof to get almost like a force-multiplier effect of our intelligence, our experience and our tactics”. In February 2014, the Scottish Crime Campus at Gartcosh became operational. The Centre was established to lead Scotland’s approach to combatting serious and organised crime. It houses various law enforcement agencies including Police Scotland, the NCA, HMRC and forensic services.
125.Steve Rodhouse, Director General of Operations, National Crime Agency told us that the NCA would “certainly be open to discussions about how that could be replicated within Northern Ireland”. He stated that the Centre in Gartcosh brought law enforcement agencies together to combine “different skills and different information to allow us to tackle the most harmful organised criminals”. Steve Tracey, Assistant Director, Organised Crime Directorate, HMRC, stated that, subject to consideration of the detail, he supported the establishment of such a centre in Northern Ireland. Steve Tracey described the proposal as a natural evolution of the work of the Joint Agency Task Force and the Paramilitary Crime Task Force, established in 2017.
126.Simon Byrne said that depending on what was agreed, the centre could involve the Gardaí. However, he noted that the PSNI proposal was “initially for Northern Ireland” rather than the whole island of Ireland. He observed that the establishment of a centre for Northern Ireland could be an “enabling function that would make us safer…because we could get best value out of the different agencies that we currently work with”. In January 2021, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable, Mark McEwan updated our Committee that the PSNI had commissioned the terms of reference for the Centre as part of discussions on its establishment with the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Northern Ireland Department of Justice.
127.Mark Larmour informed the Committee that the Northern Ireland Office had not “had any conversations with devolved colleagues on where this matter sits or on the detail around such a project”. However, he added
we would be very interested in seeing what we could learn from the Scottish model and, given that there is so much ongoing co-operation between criminal justice partners in Northern Ireland anyway, whether that could be built on. We are very interested in securing further discussions on that.
128.The PSNI told us that the creation of a bespoke Northern Ireland centre of excellence for law enforcement co-operation and co-ordination would integrate operational and investigative collaboration across law enforcement agencies. Bringing the agencies together under one roof should facilitate rapid and effective investigations. The Government must support the Northern Ireland Executive in establishing a bespoke Northern Ireland centre of excellence for co-operation and co-ordination to combat crime. There would be demonstrable benefit in ensuring that law enforcement agencies such as HM Revenue & Customs, the National Crime Agency, the security services and Border Force, participate in this centre.
287 (Mark Larmour, Director, Northern Ireland Office)
288 Police Service of Northern Ireland ()
289 See: Northern Ireland Office, , 21 December 2015; , 17 November 2015, p. 15
290 Written Questions, , Dáil Éireann Debate, 1 October 2019
291 See: Oral evidence taken before the House of Lords EU Security and Justice Sub-Committee on 17 November 2020, [Dr Vicky Conway]; Garda, , p.1
292 (Mark Larmour, Director, Northern Ireland Office)
293 (Mark Larmour, Director, Northern Ireland Office)
294 (Simon Byrne, Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland)
295 UK-Irish Criminal Justice Co-operation Network ()
296 (Simon Byrne, Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland)
297 (Mark McEwan, Assistant Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland)
298 (Mark McEwan, Assistant Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland)
299 (Robin Walker MP, Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
300 (Robin Walker MP, Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
301 (Mark Larmour, Director, Northern Ireland Office)
302 (Mark Larmour, Director, Northern Ireland Office)
303 Police Service of Northern Ireland ()
304 Police Service of Northern Ireland ()
305 (Simon Byrne, Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland)
306 , BBC News, 10 February 2014
307 , BBC News, 10 February 2014
308 (Steve Rodhouse, Director General of Operations, National Crime Agency)
309 (Steve Rodhouse, Director General of Operations, National Crime Agency)
310 (Steve Tracey, Assistant Director, Organised Crime Directorate, HMRC)
311 (Steve Tracey, Assistant Director, Organised Crime Directorate, HMRC)
312 See: ; (Simon Byrne, Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland)
313 (Simon Byrne, Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland)
314 (Mark McEwan, Assistant Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland); (Mark McEwan, Assistant Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland)
315 (Mark Larmour, Director, Northern Ireland Office)
316 (Mark Larmour, Director, Northern Ireland Office)