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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 17:40 GMT
A cure for rackets hangover?
Cigarettes seized in a joint operation by police and customs
Millions of smuggled cigarettes have been seized
As the government unveils details of its campaign to tackle organised crime in Northern Ireland, BBC correspondent Denis Murray looks at the background to this long-standing problem.

Smuggling in Ireland is as old as the border itself - established in the 1920s between the then Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.

During World War II, no trip to Dublin was complete without a contraband pound of butter hidden under the pullover.

And even in more recent times, students from the north were always prevailed on by southern friends to hide as many condoms as they could carry in the rucksack.

But given the huge difference at the moment between fuel prices (petrol and diesel) in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, smuggling has never been a bigger business.

An illegal fuel laundering plant captured by customs officials
An illegal fuel laundering plant captured by customs officials
Some petrol stations north of the border even carry signs saying: "Legal petrol only sold here".

Millions of cigarettes are being smuggled as well; and for some time now, Ireland has been used as a conduit for international drugs traffickers - consignments unloaded off yachts in the many coves and inlets in County Cork, driven north, and then into Britain on ferries from the north.

That's one of the core elements of the drive against organised crime announced by the RUC and the government. The other core element is the hangover of the racketeering of the paramilitary groups.

US expertise used

When he was chief constable of the RUC, Sir Hugh Annesley estimated it took about 5m a year to run an organisation like the IRA, and fund its terrorist activities.

He aimed the force's fraud squad, C13, at such racketeering, and brought in new computer systems used by forces in Britain and America to combat organised crime.

There have been courses in the RUC too on computer-based criminal intelligence analysis techniques.

But there is such a massive culture of illegality built up by decades of smuggling, and the 30 years of the Troubles, that it is a huge task the police and customs are facing.

Uphill struggle

There is also a culture of fear - protection rackets flourished in Belfast during the Troubles, particularly against building companies.

In one memorable Cook Report television programme - in which Roger Cook posed as an English businessman - a paramilitary group effectively offered him discount for cash upfront!

So it will clearly be an uphill struggle for the police and customs to turn back the tide of criminality.

As one police officer said: "If there's a profit to be made, someone's going to try and make it."

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