Ireland's quiet shores prove ideal for drug barons

Dublin plans tough new laws to curb armed gangs grow
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The Independent Online
TOURISTS now flocking to the scenic tranquillity of Ireland's southern and western coastlines are not alone in appreciating their sparsely populated remoteness. Drug dealers find these shores ideal for landing huge illegal drugs consignments.

Shipments seized in the past three years in these areas, along with similar quantities in Dublin, suggest that Ireland has again become a major entrepot for moving loads of cannabis into Britain. Up to IRpounds 20m- worth (pounds 19m) of illicit drugs have been seized in some raids. The ease of access for traffickers arises from the lack of a national coastguard system policing Ireland's 2,000 miles of shoreline.

Alarm over the spread of drugs in Irish cities and the growing number of murders committed by heavily armed rival dealers last week pushed the issue to the top of the Dublin government's agenda. Rising addiction, drugs sales to increasingly young teenagers and the open sale of Ecstasy alarm parents in communities used to minimal crime rates by British standards.

On Tuesday, in the quiet fishing village of Balbriggan, north of Dublin, hundreds squeezed into a local hall to vent their concern. They heard complaints that phoning gardai to alert them to evening drugs deliveries led to a single garda on duty saying he could drive by but not tackle the pushers alone.

About IRpounds 53m-worth of illegal drugs, well in excess of current domestic Irish consumption, have been seized since 1993. Concern is being increased by reports of new, more lethal brands of Ecstasy on the market.

Also on Tuesday, party leaders and the Attorney General in the ruling coalition met garda, customs and tax chiefs to discuss new ways to control millionaire dealers and stem a problem widely accepted as out of control. The use of Capone-style tax prosecutions against dealers who are converting profits into substantial property investments is a real possibility. (This in itself will be a precedent: Irish tax authorities say no one has been jailed for tax evasion since the state was established in 1922.)

On Wednesday, the cabinet considered a 60-page anti-drugs package, including plans to bring in the toughest emergency legislation since the IRA car- bomb assassination of the British ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart- Biggs, in 1976.

Controversial measures it approved included seven-day detention and allowing senior garda officers to sign search warrants without having to obtain permission from a judge.

However, gardai themselves (in a stinging editorial in their monthly magazine) suggested that Justice Minister Nora Owen was attempting to win political kudos with hard-line talk while glossing over the critical deficiency: a small and under-resourced garda drug squad.

In the event, the cabinet meeting heard that drugs units would now be enlarged and brought under a national command.

Internationally, the Irish problem has propelled the Taoiseach, John Bruton, into successfully urging EU leaders including John Major, Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl to accelerate moves towards a unified European assault on drugs trafficking, starting with more integrated intelligence sharing through the new Europol Drugs Unit. Combating the drugs threat is to be one of the main priorities of next year's Irish EU Presidency. Ireland wants EU funding for a Europe-wide coastguard network.

The technological sophistication of the traffickers was underlined when cannabis worth IRpounds 12.6m in sealed waterproof packaging was raised from one sea-bed dump off the quiet tourist haven of Kinsale in Co Cork in late 1993. Irish Customs believe satellite navigation equipment was used in locating and recovering the packages.

In other major finds, Moroccan cannabis worth pounds IR3.6m, concealed in a container cargo of cooking oil imported from Spain, was found in a Limerick warehouse in May this year; in March, a two-tonne container-load of cannabis worth IRpounds 20m, shipped from Kenya via Antwerp, was seized in Dublin; and in February IRpounds 3m-worth of cocaine was seized off Co Clare.

Competition for control of domestic Ecstasy sales has precipitated killings in Dublin, Cork and Belfast. In the most recent, Michael Crinnion, a violent member of a Cork gang, was shot outside a city bar. Afterwards, journalists were threatened and newsagents warned against selling the Cork Examiner newspaper which had campaigned against drug dealers. At Crinnion's funeral, gang members left the cortege to attack a TV crew. A cameraman, thrown off the roof of a building where he was filming, was seriously injured.

Fears that the police have been losing the battle against drugs gangs now known to possess arsenals of automatic weapons grew when shots were fired into the home of a senior garda officer investigating drug trafficking.

Inadequate garda resources in a city where arms are plentiful could lead to a wider violence. Earlier this month, a South Dublin self-proclaimed anti-drugs vigilante group claimed responsibility for shooting up the home of an alleged dealer.

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