Organised crime links of illegal cigarette trade highlighted at Naas meeting

Members of the public do not make the connection between buying illegal cigarettes or DVDs and supporting the type of organised criminal gang behaviour seen in television shows like RTE’s Love Hate.

Members of the public do not make the connection between buying illegal cigarettes or DVDs and supporting the type of organised criminal gang behaviour seen in television shows like RTE’s Love Hate.

That was the message given at a meeting in Naas on Monday to discuss Kildare’s black market problems and issues affecting local retailers.

Former Assistant Garda Commissioner Tony Hickey, who was involved in major drugs, murder and organised crime investigations during his time in the force, highlighted the links between cigarette smuggling and fule laundering operations and paramilitary organisations.

“There was some criticism early on that the Love Hate programme was too graphic. The reality is that people should realise that is the way those criminal gangs operate,” he told the Leinster Leader. “They are in business to make money and are involved in all types of crime.”

The criminal gangs have fluid links with paramilitary organisations within the cities and near the Northern Ireland border, he said. “There is interaction between the two and they are learning from each other and working together, and at loggerheads some of the time with fatal consequences.”

“In fairness to the gardai and Revenue, they do target them because the people involved in diesel and cigarette smuggling are involved in a lot of other things, including firearms, robberies and crime generally.”

Mr Hickey now works for Risk Management International, which counts retailers and those in the fuel and tobacco business among their clients. He is lobbying politicians about the effect of counterfeit products on Irish trade.

While he said there have been significante seizures by Irish customs of cigarettes and illicit diesel, the sanctions are not stiff enough to discourage criminals.

European criminals have turned away from smuggling drugs and switched to cigarettes as a way of making serious money.

“The evidence over the last while is that the risk is too great to them if they are caught trafficking in drugs, as they will get a prison sentence, but if they are caught with cigarettes they will just get a fine,” he said.

There are handsome profits to be made in the illicit cigarette trade. As an example, Mr Hickey pointed out that 10,000 cigarettes can be bought in Dubai for about E30, but if sold on the Irish market, a E3,000 profit can be made.

“They are sold in markets all over the country, they [the criminals] can come in there and sell them surreptitiously out of the boot of the car. They also supply certain retailers where they can be bought under the counter. They can be bought on the street if you know where to look. I was in Waterford before Christmas, speaking with a retailer who has a couple of shops, who said that very few people under the age of 30 buy cigarettes ni a newsagent, because they know where to buy them on the streets.”

Mr Hickey is backing a multi-strand awareness campaign to educate the public on the consequences of buying illicit goods. This, it is hoped, coupled with increased law enforcement, will lead to a fall in black market trading over the coming years.

Monday’s meeting was organised by the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, and hosted by Kildare North Fine Gael TD Anthony Lawlor at his Naas office.

According to Joe Sweeney, NRFN President, who was at the meeting, just over 9.7 million cigarettes were siezed in the Revenue Commissioners East South East region, which include s Kildare, last year.

Revenue estimates that 770 million illicity cigarettes are being smoked in Ireland every year. This, he added, raised the question of whether Revenue has the resources to clamp down on the illegal trade which, he said, “is doing terrible damage to retail newsagents across the region”.

- Laura Coates