Cross-Border smuggling: ‘The organised crime element worries me’

Middle-class nationalists in Border counties feel Brexit is an affront to the peace process

Dr Conor Patterson, chief executive of the Newry and Mourne Co-operative and Enterprise Agency at the defunct former customs clearance facility on the outskirts of Newry.  Photograph: Alan Betson

Dr Conor Patterson, chief executive of the Newry and Mourne Co-operative and Enterprise Agency at the defunct former customs clearance facility on the outskirts of Newry. Photograph: Alan Betson

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On the Border, there is no shortage of tall tales told about smuggling.

From wartime reports of hiding butter in prams or sugar under skirts, to elaborate accounts of fuel laundering plants in south Armagh, as long as there has been a Border there have been “opportunities”, as one farmer explains with a wink.

To this day, the former customs post still stands at the side of the main road between Derry city and Bridgend, Co Donegal.

“I would get people asking, are you getting out your uniform again?” says one former customs officer who spent his career on the Border.

Though unwilling to be identified because of his continued association with Revenue, he believes that in a hard-border scenario some form of bureaucracy would be unavoidable.

“There’ll have to be some sort of checks somewhere, either when the goods are leaving there or when they arrive out here,” he says.

“They’re talking about electronic checks but I don’t know, I don’t think that would work. I’d say there are boys probably rubbing their hands and can’t wait until this Brexit gets going until they get cracking.”

He is not the only one with such concerns. Border retailers, politicians and researchers have all voiced fears that Brexit could lead to an increase in cross-Border smuggling, as individuals and organised crime gangs seek to take advantage of different excise duties, VAT regimes and, potentially, different regulations or standards in the two jurisdictions.

Today, smuggling across the Border hinges predominantly on fuel, cigarettes and alcohol. But, as with so much about Brexit, uncertainty over the nature of the UK’s departure from the European Union makes it difficult to predict how this might change after March 2019.

In the last financial year, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs lost more than £40 million (€45 million) in revenue through the laundering and misuse of rebated diesel. However, the introduction of a new chemical marker, Accutrace, has helped reduce fuel laundering “considerably” in recent years, according to Northern Ireland’s former justice minister, Claire Sugden. In the Republic, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s annual report for 2015 found fuel laundering had been “effectively eliminated”.

Financial impact

The financial impact of cigarette and alcohol smuggling is more difficult to gauge as the UK revenue office does not provide specific figures for Northern Ireland.

The North’s Organised Crime Task Force annual report and threat assessment for 2017-2018, published last month, said tobacco products and illicit alcohol continues to be “imported, distributed and sold in Northern Ireland by organised crime gangs” based in Northern Ireland, mainland UK and Ireland.

Another concern is the smuggling of waste, which, depending on the outcome of Brexit, could be facilitated by a divergence in environmental protection between the two jurisdictions.

In south Armagh at the height of the Troubles there was one British soldier for every three residents, 18 watchtowers, the best technology available 

A UK government spokesperson, on behalf of the revenue office, said it remained “absolutely committed” to avoiding a hard border and that the Withdrawal Agreement would ensure the people and businesses that rely on an open border “can continue living their lives and operating as they do now.”

In the Republic, Revenue said its focus was on the “fair and efficient implementation of possible tax and customs outcomes post-Brexit”.

“Revenue is not looking for sites for customs posts . . . nor have we any plans to do so,” the office says.

“The organised crime element worries me,” says Sugden. “I think for far too long we have been distracted by the Troubles, and I suppose rightly so, but we’re starting to normalise now and with that we’re normalising in terms of our crime.

“So we are seeing rises in organised crime and we are seeing things like prescription drugs trying to be brought into the country and that is worrying.”

Perhaps inevitably, much of this is paramilitary-linked, although Sugden disputes the suggestion that it is anything other than a convenient justification for criminality.

“To me they’re petty thugs, and the sooner the general public realise paramilitaries don’t have a cause, they’re just out for their own selfish ends and it’s about controlling communities, the better.”

Economic regeneration

In Newry, Dr Conor Patterson, chief executive of the Newry and Mourne Co-operative and Enterprise Agency, has spent the last 25 years trying to bring economic regeneration to his local area.

“There’s a worry that the infrastructure and capacity of organised crime gangs from the Republic could metastasise into exploiting opportunities to make money from differentials in the price of products,” he says.

These people feel that what they took for granted in terms of a landscape of progression has been destabilised

“The risk nowadays is that organised crime would take advantage and then that corrupts because non-compliance is a corrosive element in a community.

“In south Armagh at the height of the Troubles there was one British soldier for every three residents, 18 watchtowers, the best technology available at the time, and they couldn’t lock the Border down. If non-compliance was to escalate that would be a concern,” says Patterson.

Crucially, he says, Brexit strikes at the heart of the certainties that many middle-class nationalists in Border counties had come to accept.

“These are people who wouldn’t see themselves as radical, who would be big into compliance and were working with the system of the Good Friday agreement and now these people feel that what they took for granted in terms of a landscape of progression has been destabilised.

“When you have people who would not be given to that sort of rhetoric saying, ‘I’ll tear it down with my bare hands’, or ‘If they ask me to stop I’m not stopping, they can jail me first’, that has to be a big concern,” says Patterson.

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