James McDonnell and Arthur Fearon sentence for smuggling 8.4m cigarettes

Belfast court complex McDonnell was jailed and the judge imposed a one-year prison sentence on Fearon, who did not show up

A County Down lorry driver has been jailed for almost three years for his part in a 8.4m cigarette smuggling operation across the Irish border.

James Francis McDonnell, from Ferryhill Road, Newry, was arrested during a raid on an industrial estate in Meigh, County Armagh, in June 2010.

He was arrested alongside Arthur Michael Fearon, from The Village, Jonesborough, County Armagh.

Fearon was also convicted in his absence, after failing to attend court.

The amount of UK duty that was evaded on the cigarettes was calculated as being more than £1.6m.

The pair were the only two people apprehended when police and customs officials raided units at the Bridgeview industrial estate in Meigh on 29 June 2010.

Their trial was told that a number of others managed to escape over the border to the Republic of Ireland during the raid.

The court had heard that 41-year-old McDonnell had picked up a container load, from Butterly Retail Park, Dundalk, County Louth and driven it north to the Meigh industrial park.

Police and customs officers had begun checking units, when a white lorry crashed through the door, injuring two policemen.

The lorry was later found over the border at Carrickcarnon, County Louth, with nearly five million cigarettes still inside.

The court also heard that neither defendant was one of the organisers of the smuggling operation but that McDonnell played an important role by transporting the cigarettes into Northern Ireland.

Fearon, who was a teenager at the time, had a significant role in moving the cigarettes from the container into smaller lorries.

Passing sentence, the judge quoted from an earlier court ruling which stated that : "This type of smuggling activity represents a heavy drain on the public exchequer, involves complex and expensive investigation, and results in criminals making substantial profits at the expense of the public and legitimate trade.

"Accordingly, we consider that it should normally attract a substantial deterrent custodial sentence."

The judge told the court that while McDonnell was not the organiser, planner or controlling mind behind the complex and sophisticated smuggling operation, he had played a vital and crucial role at one of its most important stages.

He added that the father of two regarded his involvement as being unwitting, but had conceded that he knew what he was doing "was somewhat dodgy".

The judge sentenced McDonnell to five and a half years, half of which is to be spent in custody and half on parole.

Commenting on 21-year-old Fearon, who did not show up for the verdict, the judge ruled that he should still be dealt with in his absence.

He said that since Fearon was still considered a "child" under law at the time of the smuggling operation, case law provided for him to be sentenced as such, and to a term of detention, as a last resort and to the minimum period necessary.

In the circumstances, the judge said he was imposing a sentence of two years detention on Fearon, with one year to be served in custody and the other on licence.

The sentencing followed the pair's third trial for fraudulent evasion of duty, after two previous Newry Crown Court juries had failed to reach verdicts.

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