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Monday, 5 November, 2001, 18:09 GMT
Illegal fuel funding paramilitary groups
Diesel pump
Border retailers are heaviest hit by illegal fuel smugglers
Paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland are smuggling up to 200m of fuel into the province every year, according to the Minster for Trade, Investment and Enterprise.

The claim was made by Sir Reg Empey, on Monday in the Stormont Assembly.

Sir Reg revealed the figures during a speech in which he warned that petrol retailers in border areas were under threat from the illegal activity of paramilitary gangs.

"This whole sorry saga is financing a whole structure of paramilitary organisations," he said.


The main gainers out of this are people who are smuggling, people who are illegally acquiring large sums of money and bleeding this industry to death

Sir Reg Empey

"Petrol imports into Northern Ireland have reduced by 55% over the last few years and vehicle numbers have increased by 22%.

"Therefore we estimate that between 100m and 200m per annum is being lost to Her Majesty's Treasury."

The Ulster Unionist Party assembly member was responding to a question from a party colleague, Billy Armstrong, who had queried what action was being taken to address the situation facing border filling stations.

Sir Reg has held meetings with Westminster officials to try to find a solution to the problem.

"I accept and acknowledge that the Treasury has improved the amount of activity taken place by customs and excise, but it is clearly not working adequately," he said.

'Impossible'

However, he added that it was not possible to reduce fuel costs in the province to the same level as that in the Irish Republic, where fuel is considerably cheaper.

He said to do so would cost the power-sharing executive 250,000 every year.

"It just isn't possible," he said.

"But I hope with the reductions in the fuel process that are currently occurring and I note they are down now in some areas to 69.9p, I hope that process continues."

SDLP assembly member Joe Byrne said that many petrol station owners in border counties needed government help in order to survive.

"Many of them are family owned businesses, indeed many of them have closed, but those that remain open want some reassurances that we are doing something on their behalf," he said.

Sir Reg added that excise duties were a matter for Westminster, but said he understood the frustration felt by those in the fuel industry.

"The main gainers out of this are people who are smuggling, people who are illegally acquiring large sums of money and bleeding this industry to death," he said.

"If it were the responsibility of this house I do not believe for one minute that members would tolerate it."

See also:

02 Nov 99 | Northern Ireland
Petrol retailers warn of further closures
21 Mar 00 | Northern Ireland
Concern over fuel prices
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