Almost one of four cigarettes smoked in Ireland has been smuggled in as part of an illegal trade that is costing the exchequer some €250 million a year, according to a former lead investigator for the Criminal Assets Bureau (Cab).
In a report submitted to Senator Paul Coghlan, the chair of a British-Irish parliamentary committee investigating cross-Border smuggling, the investigator says cigarettes have become the new cocaine trade but without the risk.
The report says the law is not being enforced rigorously enough and the smugglers are being allowed to operate with very little chance of detection on both sides of the Border.
“Cigarettes are now the preferred item to smuggle into Ireland as they are easy to buy, easy to smuggle and provide a huge return on investment,” the report says. “It is well known that major cigarette smuggling operations in the Republic and Northern Ireland are linked to subversive organisations, some active and others defunct.”
It also says criminal gangs “made up of former members of the Provisional IRA are heavily involved in this lucrative black market trade”. Other gangs pay a levy to the dissidents in order to operate, particularly around the Border area, it adds. “A percentage of this goes towards funding a central unit of hardcore Republicans, but the vast majority of smugglers are criminals simply engaged in it for personal enrichment.”
The report says Ireland is now a hub for smugglers, who often forward their contraband to the more densely populated UK for greater profits.
“In short, cigarettes are the new cocaine of the early 21st century – without the downside,” says the report. It adds that container loads with between seven and nine million cigarettes each are purchased throughout Asia and loaded on to giant container vessels.
These ships, with thousands of containers of legitimate cargo dock at what authorities see as “feeder ports”, such as Rotterdam, Antwerp and Le Havre. The consignments are then placed on smaller vessels bound for Dublin.
“The smugglers have little fear of detection at Dublin Port, where 10,000 40ft containers pass through weekly – and there is only one X-ray scanner,” it says.
Consignments are often hidden in wood to thwart the scanner. More sophisticated gangs have set up bogus furniture businesses, while other shipments are stored in 20 packs hidden in small computer components. Once cigarettes arrive in Ireland, the majority are transported to the Border counties for nationwide and UK distribution.
“In effect, Ireland is used as a transit country to Northern Ireland and the UK.”
The report also says up to 100 people are involved in the illegal cigarette trade on Dublin’s Moore Street, made up of spotters, sellers and runners. The sellers hide the cigarettes on their persons, under flowerpots, in fruitboxes and in litterbins. The spotters are overt and aggressive, with little outward fear of the authorities.
The report says sentences must be brought in line with the huge profits generated. It says average fines of €2,870 are a “mockery” to the efforts of gardaí and customs.