Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland 'soft touch' for cocaine smugglers

drugs find Image copyright PSNI
Image caption Police said the drugs had been sent under armed guard for forensic examination

Northern Ireland is "a soft touch" for international drugs smugglers, a former police chief has said.

Alan McQuillan was speaking after one of the largest amounts of cocaine ever found in Northern Ireland was discovered in a furniture delivery.

About 50 kg of the drug was found packed into suitcases at premises in Ballygawley, County Tyrone, on Tuesday.

In an unconnected incident, 20 kg of cocaine was seized in a shipment police believe was bound for Fermanagh.

It was discovered at a port in the Netherlands. Dutch police believe it was destined for County Fermanagh.

Mr McQuillan, a former PSNI assistant chief constable, said the two consignments could be worth between £10m to £14m on the street.

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Media captionLord Morrow said he was concerned Northern Ireland was perceived as an easy way to get drugs onto the ground

"These huge quantities of drugs are moving through Northern Ireland. It is being used as a trans-shipment point and some of this is probably for the Irish Republic and some for the United Kingdom," he said.

"Sadly, Northern Ireland now seems to be a soft touch for this because we don't have the National Crime Agency here and there is a glaring gap in our defences.

"We are behind the game with the rest of the UK and the rest of Ireland."

Mr McQuillan said the drugs had been discovered "fortuitously".

'Low risk route'

He said cuts to police budgets and a skills issue because of the lack of a National Crime Agency made Northern Ireland "a weak link" and an easier way to deliver drugs to both the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

He warned that if the drugs cartels viewed Northern Ireland as a low risk route, then they would use it.

"We do really need an effective system for sharing the intelligence and combating these people," he said.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has only limited powers in Northern Ireland.

Image caption The drugs were found packed into suitcases at business premises in Ballygawley, County Tyrone

Under the 1998 agreement that led to a political settlement and power-sharing in Northern Ireland, policing was subjected to a far higher degree of community oversight and monitoring than in other parts of the UK.

'Unaccountable'

The chief constable and officers are responsible to the Policing Board.

The NCA answers directly to the home secretary, meaning there can be no local oversight or control - and nationalist parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly said that it could operate as a parallel but unaccountable police force.

Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP have objected to the extension of full NCA powers in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin said: "NCA representatives would be given the powers of constable but would not be subject to the same accountability measures as the PSNI.

"That means all the hard-fought scrutiny and accountability measures - the policing board, the police ombudsman, and community safety policing partnerships - would not apply."

'Covert assets'

The SDLP said the Police Ombudsman "must have authority" over NCA personnel and "proper accountability" must be embedded in the conduct NCA activities in Northern Ireland.

The party added that the NCA's deployment of covert assets, including recruitment of agents, through to the conduct of a live operation all must have the "agreement" of the PSNI.

The NCA carries out border and customs functions in Northern Ireland - but not the other crime-fighting roles it has in the rest of the UK.

No-one has been arrested over the County Tyrone drugs seizure.

A police detective said there was no suggestion that the company based at the premises knew what was in the container.

Justice Minister David Ford said the seizure would "undoubtedly prevent more misery and possibly save lives".

"We must never become complacent about the dangers of illegal drugs, because they ruin lives and can ruin communities," he said.

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