02 February 2006

Revealed: how racketeers have their hooks deep into ulster firms

Belfast Telegraph

By Jonathan McCambridge
02 February 2006

Up to 4,000 small businesses in Northern Ireland are paying out millions of pounds each year to paramilitary extortion rackets, a parliamentary committee was told last night.

There have been calls for urgent legislation to tackle endemic paramilitary extortion of local companies after the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is investigating organised crime.

The body told the committee there had never been a serious attempt by Government to understand or solve the level of extortion in our industries.

The Organised Crime Task Force has reported that such rackets earn millions of pounds for paramilitaries every year, particularly for loyalist groups.

Wilfred Mitchell, FSB Policy Chairman, said: "We recognise that the Organised Crime Task Force has had a measure of initial success. However, more can be done at a grassroots level.

"There has never been a serious attempt by Government to fully identify the core problem and find a solution to the extortion of the small and medium enterprise sector. Northern Ireland is dependent upon this sector and the FSB can demonstrate through research that illegal donations are a hidden cost of doing business."

A recent FSB survey has found that 6% of firms are affected by perceived illegal donations. Mr Mitchell said: "Replicating this sample study, we would suggest that up to 4,000 businesses could be affected. As well as the economic impact, the fear and intimidation many businesses face is unacceptable. It is unrealistic for an individual business to report this type of crime as the consequences in terms of personal security and business sustainability are high."

The FSB also said the problem of extortion is now spreading out of Greater Belfast across Ulster.

The FSB have called for:

research into the cost and impact of racketeering and extortion on small businesses and the wider economy in Ulster to be commissioned;

the Organised Crime Task Force to make racketeering and extortion against the business community a core priority;

an independent free phone line to encourage victims of extortion to seek help and advice.

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