Ireland's largest-ever seizure of cannabis, a 15-tonne consignment with an estimated value of IRpounds 150m (pounds 153m), has again highlighted the use of remote parts of the country's coastline as a back door for bringing drugs to British and European markets.
The latest cargo brings to well over IRpounds 200m the value of drugs seized in Ireland in the past three years, but gardai accept that this may be only a small percentage of the total actually landed. The cannabis was discovered in a container trailer near the village of Urlingford in County Tipperary late on Wednesday, in a raid brought forward after news of the surveillance operation was leaked to journalists in Cork.
Gardai believe this week's Tipperary consignment was brought in by Dublin criminals who are known to supply dealers in London and Manchester. The seizure is the latest in a series of large-scale cannabis imports in recent years, taking advantage of Ireland's largely-unpatrolled 2,000 mile coastline.
Without a comprehensive coastguard system of its own, Ireland is pressing for the setting up of an European Union-wide network, and a strengthening of Europe's embryonic drugs squad, the Europol Drugs Unit. Dublin ministers have indicated that improved anti-trafficking systems will be a key objective of next year's Irish EU presidency.
Previous seizures include the recovery in late 1993 of several tonnes of sealed bales of the drug, worth IRpounds 12m, from the sea bed off Kinsale in rural Cork. Traffickers had dumped the drug for later recovery - using sophisticated satellite navigation equipment to relocate the exact position.
A series of captures was made in the same year between Tragumna and Rosscarbery in west Cork, where a maze of fjord-like inlets makes surveillance especially difficult. And in July last year a similar cargo, worth IRpounds 10m, was found on a quiet beach near Ballyconneely in Connemara.
Most of the drugs are thought to originate in north Africa, with wholesalers in Amsterdam providing a key link to local importers who control national distribution networks. But the Tipperary haul suggests complex routing may be necessary to evade detection.
Detectives have suggested that the cannabis originated in Pakistan and was moved via Amsterdam and the US before being shipped back to Europe.
Ireland has seven armed naval vessels patrolling Irish waters on both drugs and fisheries operations, and trawlers are routinely observed in an effort to identify unusual or suspicious movements. Prior to Wednesday's raid, an Irish Naval Service vessel, the LE Deirdre, tracked the movement of a petrol tanker supply vessel across the Atlantic.
Several days ago the cannabis was transferred off the west coast of Ireland into a trawler which landed the cargo at the fishing village of Castletownbere. A customs spokesman, Liam Hurley, said that the identity of the main supply vessel is known and police forces abroad are being alerted.
The drugs were found in a trailer without registration plates close to the town of Urlingford hours after gardai in Dublin stopped suspects who were carrying pounds 230,000, believed to have been for trafficking expenses. Three men and a woman from Finglas in north Dublin were questioned and may face charges.
Dubliners suspected of masterminding the consignment include a wealthy criminal linked to an ecstasy manufacturing plant in west Dublin, raided by detectives in July and thought to have been set up to supply British and Irish markets.
Wednesday's operation, after three weeks' surveillance, marks an early success for the new joint task force overseeing Garda, customs, naval and air services formed in response to the growing drugs threat, recently described by the Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, as the biggest current threat to the security of the state. The drugs trade has led to attempted intimidation of senior Garda officers by armed traffickers. One Dublin inspector earlier this year had shots fired through the front windows of his house.
In an bid to fight back, new Irish legislation allowing tougher search and detention powers for gardai in drugs cases is expected to come before the Dail by the end of this year. An agreement to facilitate closer co- operation between British and Irish Customs services involved in fighting smuggling was signed in Belfast yesterday.Reuse content