DATELINE

Tricky business at the border

Smuggling between Northern Ireland and the Republic is almost a national sport

John Conroy October 5 1981
DATELINE

Tricky business at the border

Smuggling between Northern Ireland and the Republic is almost a national sport

John Conroy October 5 1981

Tricky business at the border

DATELINE

NORTHERN IRELAND

Smuggling between Northern Ireland and the Republic is almost a national sport

John Conroy

The land on both sides of the Irish border is lush and green. Rivers run through it and hundreds of country lanes, lined by hedges and walls of stone, stretch across the line that divides Northern Ireland from the Republic. On the surface, it is a land of calm. The British army, however, calls it bandit country.

For soldiers, posting to the south Armagh region of Northern Ireland is considered the most dangerous in what remains of the British Empire. Here the Provisional IRA is very strong, and the “Provos” are adept at staging hit-andrun attacks from the South, striking targets in the North with lightning speed, then retreating across the border. The army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the Northern Irish police), take few chances and move noth-

ing overland without extreme caution. The presence of armed soldiers in the pastoral setting produces a peculiar tension, a constant sense that there is far more going on than meets the eye.

And there is. One recent evening, Jimmy Kelly, a professional smuggler from south Armagh, drove a beat-up automobile back and forth across the border on lanes hardly wide enough to hold a car. Kelly (not his real name), a stocky, curly-haired man in his mid-40s, works as a shopkeeper by day and a smuggler by night. He moves consumer goods, not weapons, and his motives are entirely economic. Like most Roman Catholics in the area, he favors the re-

unification of Ireland, which would eliminate the border—and a good portion of his income. Meanwhile he sees the border as a business opportunity.

Along Kelly’s chosen routes, this night only the slogans painted on the roads (UP THE IRA and THIS IS PROVOLAND) give any indication that this territory is any different than farmland elsewhere on the island. There are no customs officials, no police and only rarely is a soldier sighted. The locals wave to Kelly as he passes by. The son of a fishmonger, who spent much of his youth on a bicycle delivering fish in the border region, Kelly knows the roads intimately. It is a knowledge that can-

not be picked up by studying a map: the border could hardly be more irregular or less imposing. It splits houses, barns and a churchyard, and it runs through the middle of several small lakes.

Smuggling of animals and consumer goods has been a way of life along the Irish border ever since it was created. Favorite items are pigs, cattle, horses, greyhounds, gasoline, alcohol, cigarettes, grain, bananas, meat, CB radios, televisions and furniture. For the most part, they are not stolen but purchased legitimately. Smuggling is seldom considered immoral. In fact, many smugglers believe the border is immoral, not the crossing of it. The customs and excise department in the North lists 16 approved border crossings, but is only too aware that there are more than 300 unapproved roads that cross the state line.

Because the IRA uses the unofficial roads to retreat to the Republic after their attacks, the army has tried to seal off many of Jimmy Kelly’s routes. First, soldiers laid spikes in the road, which the local farmers removed. The troops then tore up the Tarmac, but the farmers just laid gravel and smoothed out the surface. When the army tried blowing craters in the road, the natives just filled in the holes. Finally, the British laid in one-metre high steel and concrete walls, but the locals have simply made roads around the walls.

Many local farmers fought back because they needed the thoroughfares to get to their fields or to the nearest town. But many others needed the lanes for their second income, derived from smuggling. “Take a 20-mile strip along each side of the border, and any farmer in it is likely to get involved in smuggling from time to time,” says a Belfast customs agent (like other principals in this story, he fears retaliation if his name is used). “There are ‘Mr. Bigs’, professional smugglers who plan their operations meticulously, and little farmers who don’t give it much thought, and there’s room for both.”

Unlike many of the locals who have been smuggling for generations, Jimmy Kelly got involved only seven years ago, when the Common Market made it particularly profitable. Since October, 1974, the EEC has been paying subsidies to farmers to prevent competition among member states. The scheme pays a subsidy to farmers who export livestock, grain and dairy products from a

high-priced area to a low-priced market. A farmer exporting in the opposite direction pays a levy of the same amount which is determined by the strength of the two currencies and the market prices in each state.

The scheme originated at a time when a subsidy was being paid on Southern pigs entering the North. Smugglers began taking Southern pigs into the North legally, collecting their subsidies and then illicitly moving the same pigs back to the South to repeat the process. And Northerners smuggled their pigs into the Republic, only to bring them back home masquerading as Southern pigs eligible for subsidy. At its peak, the subsidy was £9 per pig, so a load of 100 socalled “dizzy pigs” made a very profitable trip. (A pound is worth approximately $2.25 Canadian.)

“It was what we call a carrousel fraud,” says the Belfast customs agent. “Four to six ‘Mr. Bigs’ were involved, and then everyone who had a lorry and felt like it. We caught on when somebody looked at a tenfold increase in trade import statistics and said, ‘Hey, that’s not on. There’s not that many pigs in all of Ireland.’ Pigs have no identifying marks, and so it was a simple fraud. And crossing the border is dead easy. There are hundreds of roads, and we are not capable of keeping them all under surveillance on a 24-hour basis.”

In fact, customs agents can keep few roads under surveillance because they lack the manpower and because customs posts make easy targets for the IRA. And although there are many soldiers in the area, the troops don’t care about smuggling so long as it isn’t weapons. One popular means of eluding authority, employed by convoys of up to five trucks of smugglers, is to have a coconspirator leave an ailing truck or car blocking the path of certain strategic roads. If customs officials do approach, by the time the car has been moved aside, the smugglers will have unloaded their cargos and retreated across the border. “You pull up and there is a broken-down lorry blocking the way,” says the Belfast customs man, “and by the time you get by, all you can see are taillights in the distance.”

Not surprisingly under these circumstances, prosecutions are few and far between. Agents claim some intimidation of the tradesmen by confiscating their lorries and their cargos when they are caught in the act, and by working behind the scenes in trying to get the EEC to delay payment of subsidies to suspected smugglers. And those smugglers who are prosecuted are fined heavily; one cattle smuggler tried last January for offenses dating back to 1976 was fined £26,000, and one of his employees was fined an additional £1,000. The verdict had little effect on

the volume, but it did serve to make the smugglers more cautious. Some farmers who were reluctant to get directly involved were willing to rent their pigs to someone who was willing to take the risks and give the farmer a cut of the profits.

One of the border farmers that Jimmy Kelly has done business with has a shed that straddles the border. When pigs have been in season (i.e., when the subsidies have been high enough to make the smuggling profitable), the farmer lets smugglers use the shed. “You pull up with your lorry on one side of the border, unload it, and off you go. Another lorry on the other side arrives and takes the pigs away. If the lorry gets stopped, the driver shows papers that he bought all the pigs from this guy who owns the shed, and the guy does keep pigs, so it is entirely possible. He charges £l for each pig that goes through. You might have a hundred pigs on a load, and there might be seven guys who use the shed in a day. I can say for certain that in some weeks he has made £1,500.”

Since last fall, the big money has been made in cattle. Cattle, unlike pigs, have identifying marks, so it is possible to tell if a subsidy has already been paid on it. So the subsidy—up to £65 an animal—is collected only once, and the payoff comes in moving the cattle back home. Eugene Regan of the Dublinbased Irish Fresh Meat Exporters Society Ltd. says that more than 4,000 cattle are being smuggled across the border each week, and the EEC has been defrauded of a quarter of a million pounds.

In total, the EEC has been bilked of £10 million, much of which has found its way to IRA coffers, according to John Taylor, one of three Northern Ireland representatives in the European Parliament. Customs agents and the Northern Irish police, however, find claims that the IRA is behind the smuggling highly unlikely. “Smuggling involves a lot of work,” says the Belfast customs agent. “It’s much easier to rob a bank.” And if you are going into smuggling as a fundraising activity, you might as well go where the money is, and that is in international drug smuggling. There is just no evidence that the IRA is involved here.”

Jimmy Kelly says he works with Protestants on some of his schemes. A police spokesman in Armagh says this is not unusual: “The most remarkable thing about it is that the people who do it are usually, in every other respect, law-abiding people. It’s not the sort of thing that real criminals get into.” “You’ll never stop it now, in this country,” says William Hays of the Milk Marketing Board of Northern Ireland. “It’s a national sport.”