Ulster blighted by 78 crime gangs

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The Independent Online

A total of 78 organised criminal gangs in Northern Ireland are netting hundreds of millions of pounds from illegal activities, the authorities said yesterday.

A total of 78 organised criminal gangs in Northern Ireland are netting hundreds of millions of pounds from illegal activities, the authorities said yesterday.

A government report sets out the official assessment of an underworld which is being established as political and terrorist violence tails off. It shows the Troubles have left a residue of criminality ranging from drugs to fraud.

Although the gangs' activities have been known about for many months, the report sets out for the first time the authorities' assessment of organised crime.

It illustrates how paramilitary activity overlaps with criminality, calculating that more than half the groups known to police are associated to some degree with loyalist or republican organisations.

It says: "The pervasive existence of some local problems, notably extortion, can be traced directly to terrorism.

"Some important local criminals derive their influence and status directly from their current, or historic, paramilitary links."

An "organised crime task force" has been set up to coordinate the official response to this threat. It includes the police, Customs and Excise, the Northern Ireland Office and other government agencies. Adam Ingram, Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, said the intention was to reduce extortion, intimidation and blackmail in the first year through concerted action. He said strategies would be put in place to disrupt the supply of drugs, seek to reduce losses to the Exchequer from smuggled and laundered fuel, and smuggled tobacco and alcohol, and to deter money laundering.

Raymond White, Assistant Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, said the force was re-focusing its activities on the "criminal legacy of terrorism".

He warned: "We are a community over which the spectre of organised crime looms large. It has the potential tobecome endemic within certain areas of business."

The report says at least two organised crime groups are involved in smuggling cattle across the border in a trade which "may be worth millions of pounds per annum". But this appears to be a relatively small part of gang activity.

Gangs are mostly involved in drug-dealing, counterfeiting and forgery, robbery and money-laundering.

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