The County Louth smuggler whose container of cigarettes was hit by a rocket fired by al Qaeda on the Suez Canal has become the "number one" target for the Garda's Criminal Assets Bureau.
Investigations have shown that the man, in his mid-40s, has become one of the country's richest smugglers, supplying the illicit market in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. He has close ties to the south Armagh IRA.
He has paid no tax in years, but gardai have discovered that he has a string of commercial properties with front businesses and earlier this year bought 100 acres of potential development land for over €1m.
He came to the full attention of gardai in September after they were alerted by Interpol about the container that had been hit when al Qaeda members fired two rockets at the giant cargo ship, Asia Cosco, as it sailed up the Suez Canal on August 31.
One of the rockets struck the Louth man's container which, on the ship's manifest, was recorded as containing furniture. On inspection, it was found to contain cigarettes packed in wooden cases. A satellite tracker was placed in the container and it was followed from Dublin Port and seized outside Dundalk. Four men were arrested, but no charges have been brought to date.
Customs said the cigarettes, sold at €4.50 a pack or €40 for a carton of 10 packets, had a street value of €4.3m. The loss of revenue to the State was put at €3.7m. The cigarettes are bought in Vietnam or the Philippines for as little as 20c a packet. Despite this, the State continues to impose very light punishment for cigarette smuggling. The longest prison sentence imposed on any of the smugglers is three months and fines are generally around a few thousand euro.
Gardai have discovered the man is a frequent visitor to the Far East, particularly Vietnam and Singapore, and his cigarettes are shipped to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and then transferred from there to ships travelling along the Suez Canal to Rottderdam, and then to ports in Ireland.
The Louth man's associates include men close to the IRA leadership in south Armagh and north Louth. His involvement in smuggling cigarettes, and also diesel laundering, was known to gardai and customs, but it was not until the missile episode in the Suez Canal that he became a priority target for CAB after investigations showed the extent of his wealth. He now faces assets seizures and the serving of a major tax bill.
Gardai, the PSNI and customs on both sides of the Border have been cracking down on the illicit tobacco and diesel trade run by the south Armagh IRA since the murder of Det Garda Adrian Donohoe in January.
The lawless nature of south Armagh, gardai believe, has created cover for members of the gang who shot dead the detective during a raid on the Lordship credit union in Dundalk on January 25. Very little progress has been made in the investigation because of the inability to properly police the south Armagh area where the local IRA has refused to allow the PSNI to operate freely.
More than 20 diesel plants in south Armagh have been raided by the PSNI and UK Customs since Det Garda Donohoe's murder, based mainly on information supplied by gardai, who have been closely monitoring the activities of the IRA smugglers.
Last Wednesday, in an operation unrelated to the cigarette smuggling, the PSNI sealed off a mile-and-a-half stretch of the Concession Road from Dundalk to Castleblayney where the road crosses the Border into Northern Ireland. They raided a commercial premises.
The Border follows the line of the Fane River, which passes southwards under the road at Broomfield in the west and then goes north again a mile or so to the east past Cullaville. The unique nature of the stretch of road, with so many fuel outlets, has led locals to dub it "Sharm el Sheikh" after the city on the Gulf of Aqaba – the busiest oil tanker lane in the world.