Northern Ireland

Fight against smugglers 'could take 20 years'

Petrol pumpbs
Image caption The minister has warned that the fight against fuel laundering could take two decades

The fight by the authorities to stop the smuggling and laundering of fuel could take two decades, according to the environment minister.

He was speaking to members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster, who have been criticial of the lack of convictions for smugglers.

Mr Attwood said those involved in the practice have "relationships with dissident republicans."

He confirmed customs officials were conducting four major investigations.

Mr Attwood also told MPs on Thursday he thought there had been a "gear change" in the approach to environmental crime.

He added: "I think this is a 20-year commitment of governments across these islands."

'Threat'

He was asked by the Upper Bann DUP MP David Simpson if the job of stopping the illegal trade was "an impossible task ".

The SDLP politician replied: "Do I think we can turn this around in a short space of time ? Far from it. "

The North Down MP Lady Hermon highlighted concerns that witnesses may be reluctant to come forward which may hinder the legal process.

She suggested that non-jury trials should be used in certain cases where there is a threat of intimidation.

Mr Attwood said he "did not favour " a return to such trials and said some communities would see it "as a throwback to the past ".

The Justice Minister, David Ford, who also gave evidence said the use of non-jury trials was an option that was "open to the Director for Public Prosecutions".

He was also asked about the links between smugglers and paramilitaries and said he had heard people described as " full time criminals and part-time terrorists ".

The Alliance MLA was also quizzed on sentencing policy and he said it was clear there is public and political concern at the level of sentences imposed in fuel fraud cases.

He said he welcomed a commitment given by the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan to develop sentencing guidance in this area.

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