Northern Ireland: loyalist paramilitary assets seized – ISN

DERRY — Assets worth over UK£5 million, including properties and back accounts linked to Protestant Loyalist paramilitaries, have been frozen by Northern Ireland’s main criminal assets agency.

Late on Wednesday night, the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) seized several properties in Northern Ireland and in Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, as well as an apartment on the Cote D’Azur in France. In total, 49 properties came under the remit of the ARA action, which had been permitted by Belfast’s High Court. Eight bank accounts were also frozen.

The assets belonged to an individual named Colin Armstrong, who has allegedly been involved in drug smuggling from the continent, with links to crime groups based in Belgium.

Armstrong is said to have links with two Protestant paramilitary groups – the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), which split from the UVF in the early 1990s. Properties seized were in the Portadown and Craigavon areas south of Belfast. Both towns are LVF strongholds.

The UVF is linked to the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) – a small party with little prospects of breaking the dominance of Northern Ireland’s main unionist parties, which have no paramilitary links.

Pro-British Loyalist groups are widely regarded as dominating the drugs trade in Northern Ireland. Paramilitary crime has been at the forefront of political debate in Northern Ireland recently, with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) allegedly behind the theft of some €38 million from a Belfast bank in December.

Northern Ireland’s paramilitary groups run sophisticated criminal networks with links on the European continent. The IRA is said to be a leading player in criminal activity all over Ireland, laundering money via a system of pubs, taxi firms, and front businesses.

Paramilitaries use the proceeds from criminal activities to acquire weapons, recruit new volunteers, and exert social control over working-class suburbs in Northern Ireland’s cities and towns.

Wednesday’s move by the ARA appears to reflect a new confidence on the part of the state in confronting paramilitary groups in both jurisdictions in Ireland. The Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin played a key role in the ARA’s investigation of Armstrong. This follows the close cooperation between the Garda Síochána (the police in the Irish Republic) and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in the follow-up investigations into the Belfast bank robbery.

Until recently, paramilitary crime was regarded as politically untouchable, and the issue was not addressed in the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement for Northern Ireland.

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