Tuesday 10 December 2019

Brexit Aftershock: What will happen the Northern Ireland border?

With 500km of Border crossing and as many roads, police and customs could not hope to stop smuggling, writes Jim Cusack

North and south: Traffic passes a border sign at Newry. Photo: Getty
North and south: Traffic passes a border sign at Newry. Photo: Getty

Jim Cusack

British border controls with the Republic will probably consist of increased port and airport security as it is "impossible" to secure the 500km land border, senior garda sources say.

Policing on both sides of the Border has reduced to well under half the levels there were during the 1971-1997 Provisional IRA terrorist campaign, when there was also a substantial British military presence at fortified checkpoints. The Irish Army also maintained a presence at the Border.

The four garda border divisions - Donegal, Sligo-Leitrim, Cavan-Monaghan and Louth - have a combined strength of 1,280 officers.

Although extra resources were promised in the Louth division, which has had two gardai - Det Garda Adrian Donohoe and Garda Tony Golden - murdered while on duty, garda numbers have continued to fall. In 2008, there were 296 gardai in the Louth division compared with 287 this year, according to Department of Justice figures.

The Cavan-Monaghan division has seen an even bigger reduction from 488 in 2008 to 387, a nearly 20pc reduction.

The number of active customs inspectors in the Republic is understood to be under 200, although the Revenue Commissioners insists the figure is higher. Customs sources say the service has been "whittled down" since the opening of EU borders.

A senior garda source said the most likely outcome of Brexit will be a major upswing in smugglings. And transport industry sources said yesterday the belief among the smugglers is that a bonanza is on their way as EU-UK price fluctuations begin to occur.

The South Armagh-centred Provos' main income for the past year has been from buying clear or "white" diesel in the Republic and selling it in the North at a profit of around 30c (24p) per litre. They were hit by yesterday's drop in sterling, and any further weakening against the euro could reduce the estimated €5,000 profit on a tanker load of smuggled fuel, according to transport industry sources.

The main Provo smugglers held a conference at a border hotel last month for an open-forum discussion on the potential effects of Brexit. According to reliable sources, while little of what was said is known, the meeting was unanimously in favour of Britain leaving the EU.

A very close associate of the jailed South Armagh boss, Thomas 'Slab' Murphy, is said to have chaired the discussion.

Their pro-exit stance places them, idealistically at least, at variance with Sinn Fein, the party to which the smugglers have traditionally aligned themselves.

A "hard" Border may be a blow to Sinn Fein's former promise to supporters of a united Ireland by 2016, but it would be unlikely to offer any threat to the smugglers who were able to operate through the Troubles, smuggling cattle and pigs across the Border when the British Army had fortified checkpoints on all the main crossings.

Local sources say the Border smugglers, like everyone else, are uncertain about what the UK exit will bring, but believe it will inevitably lead to major opportunities. The loss of EU farm subsidies in the North could open the way for a return to livestock smuggling, which was their main income source from the 1970s until the subsidies north and south were aligned in the early 1990s.

Up to the start of last year, the main Provo income was from buying cheap agricultural diesel or "green" in the Republic and "washing" out the dye by using acids and detergents for resale in the North. The addition of an isotope marker by the Revenue at the start of last year has more or less stopped the "washing" process, which produced thousands of tons of toxic waste, which was dumped in the border area.

People in the border area say Provisional IRA punishment attacks, threats and intimidation have escalated around the Border and other parts of the North since last month's Assembly elections.

One man and woman were badly injured and more than a dozen other incidents of threats and intimidation were made in the past month against people who, the sources say, include some who have spoken out against IRA criminality.

While Sinn Fein maintains that the IRA no longer exists, a source in one republican stronghold said that in one violent incident, a victim was told that he was being attacked on behalf of "the Army", a term which is generally taken to refer to the Provisional IRA.

The intimidation is said to be most concentrated in Armagh and Belfast where Sinn Fein faced organised political opposition among Catholic voters, losing a seat in West Belfast as the local People before Profit Alliance candidate, Gerry Carroll, topped the poll.

Local people say that in the months prior to the May 5th election, there was a noticeable downturn in IRA activity, but immediately afterwards, violence and threats began to reoccur. The Sunday Independent approached one man known to have received threats from the IRA, but he declined to comment.

Sinn Fein has issued statements criticising punishment attacks and intimidation and continues to deny the IRA exists or is involved in organised criminality.

However, the Sunday Independent understands that one man currently under investigation for a recent "punishment" attack has a conviction for voter impersonation and is a well-known Sinn Fein election worker.

The party is not blamed per se for the attacks, but people in nationalist areas who have spoken out against the IRA's involvement in intimidation and criminality are said to be fearful that the "blind eye policy" to IRA crime, as they term it, is being allowed to continue.

This is a reference to what is believed to have stemmed from secret agreements around the time of the IRA ceasefires and 1998 Good Friday Agreement, allowing the IRA to continue its criminal activities so long as it stopped carrying out bomb and gun attacks on British security and commercial targets.

In the years since the ending of the Troubles, many IRA figures along the Border have become millionaires through smuggling. Documents produced in court in Spain last year contain British Intelligence Service estimates that 25pc of the smugglers' earnings from tobacco and fuel still go to a central "Provisional" republican fund.

Sunday Independent

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