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Sunday, 13 January, 2002, 12:27 GMT
Tables turn on 'ordinary' criminals
Petrol and cigarette smuggling are on the rise in Northern Ireland
The Royal Ulster Constabulary fought a war against terrorism in Northern Ireland for over 30 years.

But now the province's new police service, the PSNI, is tackling a new enemy which is growing fast - organised crime.

It is a problem which the government has described as a "mafia-like virus" infecting society in Northern Ireland.

The BBC Radio Five Live programme Ordinary Decent Criminals, produced by Peter Somerset, found three areas where the gangs are making money - fuel and tobacco smuggling, and the drugs trade.

 Click here to hear the Five Live Report

These people are not Robin Hoods - they are hoods

Jane Kennedy
Security Minister

In September 2000, the then Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, established a Northern Ireland Organised Crime Task Force, drawing together police, customs, the Inland Revenue and other government agencies.

It has discovered that about half the criminal gangs operating in Northern Ireland have no links to paramilitary groups.

Because Northern Ireland has a land border with another state, the Irish Republic, there has been a long tradition of smuggling between the two jurisdictions.

One of the biggest earners for the criminals nowadays is vehicle fuel. Diesel is 25 pence a litre cheaper in the Irish Republic than it is in Northern Ireland. But that is not enough for the smugglers.

They take domestic heating oil and agricultural diesel, which is coloured with a dye, and put it through a crude chemical process before selling it at a big profit north of the border.

A third of cigarettes sold may be illegal

And now these fuel smugglers are moving into mainland Britain. Tankers have been caught making the Irish Sea crossing and some of the criminals are selling their expertise to gangs in England.

The Petrol Retailers Association has accused Customs and Excise of lacking the resources and the ability to deal with the problem.

It claims that half of the petrol and diesel sold in Northern Ireland is illegal while others say a third of cigarettes sold in the province have also been smuggled.

Audrey Wales, spokeswoman for the Tobacco Alliance in Northern Ireland, says smuggled cigarettes are being sold by pubs, clubs and taxi drivers - and even by some "legitimate" tobacco retailers.

"They are scared of going out of business and there is pressure being put on them by certain organisations," she says.


While drug abuse has not been as bad as in the rest of the UK, the drugs problem in Northern Ireland is now "spiralling," according to the head of local drugs squad, Superintendent Judith Gillespie.

She says as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, police numbers are shrinking and the security presence on the streets is a lot less visible. As a result, criminals are prepared to take more risks.

But where is all the money going? During the Troubles, racketeering was a big money-spinner for terrorist organisations. Now police on both sides of the border say more and more of the profit is for personal gain.

Security Minister Jane Kennedy warns that while today a criminal may sell you counterfeit goods, tomorrow he could be dealing in drugs on the streets of Belfast.

"These people are not Robin Hoods - they are hoods," she said.

"Ordinary Decent Criminals" was broadcast on BBC Radio Five Live on Sunday 14 January.

See also:

25 Dec 01 | Northern Ireland
Irish border smugglers hit hard
05 Dec 01 | Northern Ireland
Operation targets fuel smugglers
31 Aug 00 | Northern Ireland
Cigarettes earn more for smugglers
16 Aug 00 | Northern Ireland
Customs seize 15m smuggled cigarettes
28 Mar 00 | Northern Ireland
Customs seize cigarettes haul
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