Irish navy urged to send ships to west Africa to stop smugglers

Ireland should help poorer nations to intercept cocaine on its behalf, paper states

A Garda cocaine seizure last year

A Garda cocaine seizure last year


Ireland should send warships to west Africa to help intercept cocaine shipments coming in from South America, the Irish head of the EU’s anti-drug smuggling agency has said.

Currently traffickers are bringing up to €7 billion worth of cocaine into Europe every year by smuggling it across the Atlantic and through the “soft underbelly” of west Africa.

Much of this cocaine ends up on Irish streets, where it does enormous harm to society, Michael O’Sullivan, a former assistant commissioner in the Garda and the current head of the EU’s Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (MAOC) in Portugal, wrote in an article in the journal Defence Forces Review.

MAOC co-ordinates naval and law enforcement agencies across seven countries, including Ireland, to intercept drug smugglers on the Atlantic.

The transatlantic drug trade is a real and current threat to Irish society, Mr O’Sullivan said, and a key method of countering this trade is through enforcement at sea. There was a 50 per cent increase in people being treated for cocaine addiction in Ireland in 2018, he added.

Intercepting cocaine before it lands ashore and is distributed is far more effective than waiting for it to reach its destination, he said.

Mr O’Sullivan estimated that gardaí had intercepted about one tonne of cocaine in the past five or six years. The same amount is typically found on a single trafficker’s yacht in the Atlantic, he said.

Sophisticated smuggling

Drug smugglers are using increasingly sophisticated methods to traffic cocaine against what has become known as Highway Ten, the busy sea lane that runs from the Caribbean to west Africa. They have recently started using so-called “narco-subs” – vessels that sail just under the surface of the ocean to move drugs across the ocean.

This places an outsized burden on poorer African states to intercept drugs on behalf of the European countries that will be the cocaine’s final destination, Mr O’Sullivan said.

Ireland, as a member of MAOC and a country with a worsening cocaine problem, should contribute naval resources to building up capacity in countries such as Cape Verde to allow for more effective drug interdiction operations, he said.

In the article, Mr O’Sullivan and his co-author, Naval Service commander Cathal Power, said Ireland had a “vested interest” in joining with other EU nations to stop maritime trafficking.

They pointed out that the Naval Service was empowered under the Criminal Justice Act 1994 to engage in drug interdiction operations.

The intelligent use of warships in the Atlantic would “ensure that the high seas should not be viewed as an area beyond regulation, but rather as a common resource and an area where the ideal of absolute freedom should only be restrained to safeguard the common good and prevent morally reprehensible and illegal acts.”

Ireland lags behind

Every other member of MAOC except Ireland has now committed to capacity-building missions in Cape Verde. The Belgian navy is also working to build capacity in the small island nation. Mr O’Sullivan said it was now time for Ireland to “step forward”.

“Now is the time for Ireland to join our European partner nations in a more overt, forward presence in the southern part of the North Atlantic,” the article states. “The removal of drugs upstream, in bulk, would have an immensely positive impact on European and Irish society.”

Mr O’Sullivan noted the limited resources of the Irish Naval Service- only six of nine ships are currently operational due to staffing issues. However, he said previous missions in the Mediterranean demonstrated the “significant ‘power to weight ratio’ which can be delivered by Irish warships.”

The Irish Naval Service could build capacity or put in place a “forward presence” through short training missions or deployments lasting four to eight weeks, he said.

“Such operations could have a direct effect in stemming the flow of cocaine on to the streets of Ireland, thereby having a direct contribution to the wellbeing and safety of our citizens.”