Irish drug trade’s scale and severity laid bare by Europol

New report highlights level of intimidation here and outlines Kinahan gang operations

“County lines” is the innocuous term given to a devastating criminal phenomenon which has emerged in the UK in recent years.

It refers to a system used by major criminal gangs to traffic drugs, mainly heroin and crack cocaine, into rural areas.

County lines gangs recruit vulnerable young people, including teenagers, to travel to provincial towns to sell their drugs. Some children are recruited directly from care homes.

The gang establishes a dedicated phoneline for users in these areas to ring in their orders – this is where the term “county lines” originates from. The young person on the ground then delivers the order. It’s as easy as ordering a takeaway.


The bland terminology masks the ruinous consequences of this model of drug dealing. Teens recruited into county lines gangs face daily threats and intimidation from their “superiors”.

In turn they dish this violence out to the customers; it is up to the dealers to collect payment or they’ll suffer the consequences. Towns across the UK previously unaffected by seriously criminality have seen dramatic increases in violence because of the activity of these gangs.

According to the UK's National Crime Agency, there has been an 807 per cent increase in the number of victims of child slavery since 2014, as a consequence of county lines gang activity, while the Children's Commissioner estimates 27,000 children in England now identify as gang members.

The phenomenon has remained largely unknown on this side of the Irish Sea. However, a new report from Europol suggests that might soon change.

New form of distribution

According to Europol’s 2019 Drug Markets Report, county-lines-style drug distribution is now a feature of the Irish drug trade. Rather than selling drugs to local dealers in provincial towns, organised crime groups are now often selling the drugs themselves.

The State is one of several EU countries where this new form of distribution has been observed by authorities, the others being Belgium, Estonia, Greece and Sweden.

“The provincial towns are considered attractive thanks to the direct access to local users and potentially new customers and the comparatively weak competition from local drug dealers,” the Europol report noted.

The report said the phenomenon has become associated with “a range of harms, such as violence and the exploitation of vulnerable populations, including children”.

The end users also suffer as they end up buying directly from big-city criminals who are more likely to use extreme violence to enforce their debts.

This ties into another worrying Irish trend noted by Europol: the scale and severity of drug debt intimidation.

"Notably, in Ireland many communities have been severely affected [by intimidation], with major impacts on the health and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities and the functioning of local services and agencies," it noted.

Local gardaí and community activists have long tried to highlight the scale of the problem of intimidation and threats by drug gangs seeking to enforce debts. They have had mixed success.

The Garda has set up a network of inspectors responsible for dealing with complaints of drug debt intimidation but the issue remains rife throughout the country.

Three-tier structure

According to Europol, Irish drug gangs have a three-tier structure. At the top are the “serious players” who are often linked through family ties.

They control a middle tier comprising criminals “typically engaged in high-risk, low-reward activities, such as transporting, holding or dealing drugs, carrying guns, and conducting shootings, beatings and serious intimidation”.

At the bottom is a large number of “highly disadvantaged young people” who are often addicts themselves. It is this tier which carries out the bulk of the intimidation. According to Europol, their typical activities are “bullying, assaulting, stealing, vandalising and spreading fear on behalf of the network”.

Despite these developments there is, as yet, little evidence Irish county-lines-style gangs are employing the same level of sophistication as their UK counterparts.

The same cannot be said of the Kinahan gang, however, which Europol identifies as one of the main cocaine importers operating in the EU.

The gang is mentioned by name several times throughout Europol's 290-page report, with Europol noting its members are engaging in some of the worst gang violence in Europe, namely the feud with the rival Hutch gang which has claimed some 20 lives in three countries.

The Kinahan gang has been so successful in flooding Ireland with cocaine that it is now smuggling surplus supplies to non-EU countries such as Australia, the report notes.