pounds 13.5m drugs sting backfires on Irish police

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A multi-million pound drugs sting set up by Irish police to trap some of Europe's biggest drug dealers has backfired, leaving the cream of Ireland's detectives and a justice minister with egg all over their faces.

The plot was simple: to catch the suspects red handed as they imported a pounds 155m (IR pounds 150m) 13.5 tonne shipment of cannabis.

Suspicions were aroused after the drugs were found last November in a parked trailer at Urlingford in Kilkenny. But a planned swoop by garda drug squad officers never took place and no one was ever arrested.

This month, tipped off by her security sources, Liz O'Donnell, opposition Progressive Democrats (PD) justice spokeswoman, enraged the Irish government by claiming the consignment was really a gardai-inspired entrapment that failed.

She alleged the Irish police, assisted by a top United States drugs enforcement agent, delivered the consignment to Ireland for collection by drug barons who were led to believe they were buying from the US mafia.

Much to the government's embarrassment there were also claims that even when the drugs arrived there was little or no criminal involvement: gardai ran the whole exercise and landed the consignment from a trawler reportedly hired by detectives in Co Cork. From there it was taken to Kilkenny by a gardai driver masquerading as a criminal courier.

The Irish government denied there had been any attempt at entrapment. Officials claimed that a confiscated pounds 240,000 "downpayment" confirmed criminals were involved.

But opposition politicians claim their view of events is supported by the justice minister, Nora Owen, who told the Irish parliament: "On the level at which the importation was authorised, it was an operational decision and did not involve any politicians."