Northern Ireland

PSNI's major crackdown on UVF drug dealers

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Media captionThe police raid a house in east Belfast as part of Operation Mors

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has faced criticism over the past year, with allegations that it turned a blind eye to the activities of the Ulster Volunteer Force in east Belfast. The PSNI responded by making its activities in the area more public.

The PSNI calls it Operation MORS.

It started four months ago and is aimed at tackling drug dealing and other criminal activity by members of the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and other gangs based in east Belfast.

Since early October, there have been searches of more than 70 houses and business premises.

Police sources say those searches were part of a more visible phase of an operation targeting the UVF that started more than two years ago.

Those being targeted are involved in drugs, extortion, blackmail, selling smuggled cigarettes, illegal taxi operations and running illegal gaming machines.

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Image caption 24-year-old Jemma McGrath was shot five times by the UVF in her east Belfast home last September.

During the past two years, there have been about 50 arrests, and more than 40 people have been charged or reported to the Public Prosecution Service. The majority of those individuals have UVF links.

The operation brings together local police officers, specialist units and the PSNI intelligence and serious organised crime branches.

The latest search operation took place on Tuesday night, when officers raided a house off the Newtownards Road. Their target was not at home, and no illegal substances or items were recovered.

It was the kind of more visible policing that local politicians have been calling for, following claims that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was turning a blind eye to the activities of the UVF.

Operation MORS started shortly after 24-year-old Jemma McGrath was shot five times by the UVF in her east Belfast home last September.

One of those who was critical of the level of police activity in the area at the time was the DUP's Gavin Robinson, the then lord mayor of Belfast.

He now says the PSNI is tackling the criminal activities of the UVF and other groups in the area.

"I have been encouraged and, I think, it was important that the police took the opportunity to show that they were prepared to stand with our community against criminals," he said.

"For too long, the view was there that the police were turning a blind eye, not doing enough, tangibly, in their efforts to stamp out people who are prepared to peddle poison within our community."

Those sentiments are echoed by East Belfast Alliance MLA and Policing Board member Chris Lyttle.

Image caption The target of the police operation was not in the house

"People in the community have welcomed an increased, visible police operation in east Belfast but it's clear that many people do continue to live in fear as well, we've had drug dealing, extortion and serious violence," he said.

"We need serious police action that's going to lead to convictions to encourage people in the community that it's safe and effective to come forward with information."

Police sources say those being targeted are not Tony Soprano-type figures, but low-level criminals.

They live in modest houses, drive modest cars and do not display obvious signs of wealth, but are involved in a wide range of criminal activity. Many are members of the UVF, but other gangs are also operating in the area.

The police insist this latest operation is not just for the optics, not simply to counter criticism that they were not doing enough to tackle the UVF.

They describe it as "co-ordinated attrition", a sustained effort to disrupt the activities of those involved in organised crime, to jail those responsible, and build community confidence in policing.

Gavin Robinson says the community in east Belfast will judge the police on their actions, rather than promises.

"Let's see the arrests, let's see the prosecutions," he said.

"Let the community see that individuals who want to drag our community down are being taken off the streets and put where they belong."

The number of convictions in the months ahead will be the ultimate test of success.

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