In December last year BBC NI Spotlight broadcast an investigation which revealed that paramilitary-linked loan sharks had targeted food bank users and food parcel operations in some loyalist areas. As the Cost of Living crisis continues to deepen, reporter Mandy McAuley writes about the growing sense of abandonment, desperation, and fear she encountered in some of Northern Ireland’s most impoverished communities
At this stage in my reporting career very little shocks me. However, there were moments during the making of the Loan sharks and Paramilitaries film with producer, Guy Grandjean, that my jaw dropped as we began to hear harrowing testimony from victims across Northern Ireland. All incredibly brave people who could not be identified on camera to protect the safety of both them and their families, but who wanted to tell their stories on the record in order to help others.
Over several months we slowly pieced together an evidence trail with input from single parents on benefits, people out of work through sickness, and low-paid families juggling two and three jobs. While loan sharks thrive in all impoverished areas, both loyalist and republican, senior community and security sources concur that paramilitary-linked money lending is most acute and widespread in loyalist urban areas. All of those featured on the programme live in loyalist communities across Northern Ireland.
They told us that, in some areas, entire streets and apartment blocks are now turning to money lenders – whether from paramilitaries or other criminal gangs – for instant cash as they struggle to cover basic bills and essentials. One man says he succumbed to loan sharks after he was forced to give up work due to illness and then his universal credit was cut.
“They’re waving the cash in front of your face. There are no complicated forms to fill in, and no credit history checks. I was desperate, and I thought this was a lifesaver. I can go and do a good shop, I can put electricity on, and I can finally relax,” he said.
One woman, a single parent, said she initially borrowed £50 for a bag of groceries and baby supplies. A month later her interest rate doubled, and then came the threats from the paramilitaries.
“And then they have you, you’re trapped. You and your family are trapped in this endless nightmare. For what? A bag of groceries,” she said.
Several women targeted told us they were initially approached by “a female friend” who knew they needed money, others said they believed they were singled out after they revealed on their neighbourhood WhatsApp and Facebook groups that they were struggling: “They used to target you at the shops and the post office. Now they do a lot of their business over social media where people are more likely to drop their guard.”
Paramilitary money lending is not new in Northern Ireland. During our investigation we heard that generations of the same families – grandparents, parents and adult children – have handed control of their finances, and benefit books, over to paramilitary-linked loan sharks. Several long-established charities and community groups told us the dependence on paramilitary-linked money lenders appears to be most deeply rooted and ingrained in loyalist areas.
It’s viewed by some we spoke to as “a necessary evil, a service that your granny used”. However, many of those trying to help victims fear the deepening Cost of Living crisis, low wages, and a benefits system that, they say, needs completely overhauled, have created the perfect storm for extremely dangerous – and violent – loan sharks to flourish.
In Belfast, the Chair of the East Belfast Mission, Brian Anderson, told us that community intermediaries are now stepping in on behalf of terrified families who risk being criminalised by loyalist paramilitaries to repay small cash debts; “£50, £100, a couple of hundred pounds, the price of a second-hand fridge freezer,” he said. Asked what would happen if those intermediaries did not negotiate with paramilitaries, he is very clear about the potential short-term consequences for victims.
“It’s very easy to have your principles from a distance but this is real life and you can’t abandon someone who has a risk of a criminal record for only wanting a freezer in their home. We’re talking about the bare essentials of life. We have to step in.”
Between April and July this year over 10,000 people across NI sought help or were referred to the UK’s biggest food bank network, The Trussell Trust, which has 45 outlets here. The Trust’s NI lead, Jonny Currie, took part in the programme. He expressed concerns that food bank users are being preyed on by illegal money lenders. “Food banks and the network have reported back to us that folks that are referred to them have said they are part of that illegal system – illegal money lenders, criminal gangs, paramilitary organisations, whatever you want to call them, in those local communities, that are preying on those people who are in crisis.”
That concern is reinforced by the recent experience of Alan (not his real name). He said he was offered instant cash by two men who came to his home one evening after he had returned from his local food bank.
“I recognised one of them. He had been sitting in a car outside the food bank while we queued to go in.”
It’s clear from our sources that loyalist paramilitaries have especially tightened their grip on the most vulnerable households during the Covid lockdown. One woman who we interviewed anonymously told us some of her friends and neighbours are still struggling to repay small cash loans offered to them by paramilitaries at the height of Covid restrictions. They were targeted, she said, by community volunteers delivering food parcels to households who turned out to be loan sharks in disguise. They later returned to those households with offers of instant cash.
Her testimony is backed up by former Justice Minister, Naomi Long, who told us she was approached by churches and food banks during lockdown with very serious concerns that some community food parcel operations had been infiltrated by loan sharks. She said she reported her concerns to the police but had been called a liar by some within the loyalist community. Almost two years on, fear is palpable in many of Northern Ireland’s most impoverished communities.
People struggling to make ends meet feel trapped and isolated and yet the vast majority of those we spoke to believe that asking the police for help would risk making their situation much worse. They fear serious reprisals for themselves and their families. “Nobody wants to be labelled a tout,” is a common refrain.
Detective Superintendent Emma Neill from the Organised Crime Branch acknowledges that illegal money lending is one of the most under-reported crimes but insists the police are being proactive. “We are trying to progress investigation,” she said. “We have four other prosecutions that have been reported to the PPS and in fact recently we’ve undertaken an operation in the mid and east Antrim area including Newtownabbey as well.”
Despite those operations there have been just two convictions for paramilitary money lending since 2016. Ms Neill
said it was essential for the public to engage with the police.
“It is really important that the community engage with the police and help us identify those that are controlling, seeking to control and exploit members of their own community. We will take robust action and we will investigate where there are allegations, threats, intimidation and violence.”
Last year the Stormont Executive launched a £200K public awareness campaign highlighting the impact of paramilitary moneylenders. The TV ad campaign was part of a long-term £73 million programme launched in 2016 to combat paramilitarism and associated criminality – a joint strategy with the police and HMRC.
As the former lead minister on the task force Naomi Long told us there had been some progress but acknowledged there was still a long way to go.
What’s clear from our investigation and from the volume of people who contacted us anonymously in the days after the broadcast with similar testimony is that there is much work to be done, both at an individual and community level. People want to talk about what’s going on in their communities. They want to break free from the coercive control. Time will tell if the Executive and the relevant agencies can come together to find a way of facilitating that conversation before it’s too late for victims.