High fuel prices lead to rise in petrol smuggling

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The Independent Online

Petrol smuggling between the Republic of Ireland and the North has resulted in the closure of 70 petrol stations and cost the Treasury hundreds of thousands of pounds as criminals cash in on the 30p-a-litre price difference between the two countries.

Petrol smuggling between the Republic of Ireland and the North has resulted in the closure of 70 petrol stations and cost the Treasury hundreds of thousands of pounds as criminals cash in on the 30p-a-litre price difference between the two countries.

The claim by the Petrol Retailers' Association (PRA) coincides with the release of figures showing that official deliveries of petrol in the Province have dropped from more than 160,000 tons in the last quarter of 1998-99 to fewer than 110,000 in the first quarter of this year.

A government spokesperson said last week that more than one million litres of contraband petrol were seized by customs officials last year. Industry sources believe this represents only a small percentage of the actual volume of fuel crossing the border.

Smugglers have been arrested using everything from full-size tankers to jerry cans to transport petrol and diesel to small filling stations in Northern Ireland. Noel Smyth, regional manager of the PRA, says that while his organisation does not condone its members selling smuggled fuel, it can understand why they do so.

In the past 18 months, 70 petrol stations in Northern Ireland have been forced to close through lack of trade. Six hundred survive, but Mr Smyth says that if government duty on fuel remains static their future is also threatened.

"There has to be some provision made for Northern Ireland," he said. "We are entirely different from the rest of Britain in that we have a land border with another European country. Our industry won't survive these duties."

Recent political progress has in effect seen the disbandment of border crossing points at what was for many years one of the mostly closely monitored frontiers in western Europe. With more than 400 miles ofborder to police and a much reduced customs force, one officer admitted privately it was "too much to control". "These people [smugglers] known if they use a little bit of brain- power they won't run into too much trouble," he said.

Tabling a question on the issue in Parliament, the Tory spokesman on transport, Archie Norman, said the problem has reached endemic proportions in the Province. Smuggling was the price of excessive taxation, yet the Government seems indifferent, he said.

Customs officials say people from both sides of the border have been arrested. One man detained for smuggling last month used live sheep to conceal his cargo of fuel.

More worrying, officers say, are reports that petrol smuggling has become a means of funding for racketeers and paramilitary organisations. This claim is backed by the Northern Ireland Economic Council, whose report into the issue also found that the price differential was encouraging "flagging out", a term used to describe the practice of registering vehicles in another European Union state - in this case, the Republic.

At the filling stations along the border that remain open, forecourts are quiet. Some proprietors have tried to diversify into food, hardware and, in one case, a garden centre. But people rarely buy petrol. "The only petrol we sell here is to the odd tourist, who hasn't a clue where they are," said one woman garage owner. "And then we sell to people who think they've crossed the border already. They fill up their cars and then they come to pay and there's a big row."

By contrast, at the Four Counties filling station across the border in Dundalk, a queue of cars with Northern plates wait their turn. The owner bought 70 jerry cans last week to sell at £10 each. Yesterday, he had only two left.

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