Dáil Éireann - Volume 451 - 05 April, 1995

Adjournment Debate. - Castletownbere (Cork) Customs Service.

Mr. J. Walsh: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this very important matter on the Adjournment. The customs office in Castletownbere has been closed for some time and I have made representations to have it reopened. Given the substantial quantities of drugs seized off the south coast in the past 12 months and related problems, it is very important that this office is reopened immediately. Last year the registered traffic in Castletownbere included 250 yachts, 215 Spanish fishing vessels, a large Russian fleet and countless pleasure crafts of one type or another. Yet there is no surveillance in this area.

Mr. Sheehan: There has been none for the past two years.

An Ceann Comhairle: Please, Deputy Sheehan, the time for this debate is limited.

Mr. J. Walsh: I am not talking about the seizure of pounds or kilos of drugs but rather of tonnes of drugs. I find it unbelievable that there is no surveillance along the coastline between Bantry and Dingle. The customs officer is a native of Adrigole which is adjacent to Castletownbere and it makes no sense to locate the headquarters of the customs office in Bantry, with the consequent mileage costs etc. Even on purely economic grounds it makes sense to reopen the customs office in Castletownbere and to staff it on a permanent basis.

In recent years the level of surveillance along the coastline has deteriorated. During the time of English occupation surveillance was done by people in Martello towers and lighthouses and by those in the coastguard rescue service.

Mr. Sheehan: Fianna Fáil closed them down.

Mr. J. Walsh: Drug traffickers are using the coastline and, in particular, the south west coastline to import drugs.

Mr. Sheehan: I told the Deputy that two years ago.

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Sheehan must restrain himself.

Mr. J. Walsh: Given the substantial seizures of cannabis and ecstasy in recent days, I plead with the Minister to reopen the customs office in Castletownbere.

[1453] The recent £21 million haul and the massive haul off the Kerry coast are just the tip of the iceberg. It is pointless overlooking this dreadful problem, our citizens deserve more attention. I recently tabled a Dáil question to the Minister for Finance and received a typical reply stating that Revenue is fully alert to the dangers of drug smuggling, but that the matter would be reviewed. I want an urgent review carried out and a full-time staffed Customs office located in Castletownbere.

Mr. Sheehan: The Deputy did not listen to me when he was in Government.

Mr. Callely: The man from Castletownbere.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. J. Higgins): With the introduction of the Single European Market in January 1993, the volume of Customs work in Castletownbere declined significantly. The Revenue Commissioners studied the impact of the Single Market on the Customs and Excise service and concluded that the most effective means of providing a Customs service in the Bantry Bay-Beara Peninsula area was to have staff centralised in, and operating from, Bantry and deployed on a flexible basis to various locations, including Castletownbere, as required to meet the needs and demands of work. The Deputy will be pleased to know that an officer of Customs and Excise is currently based in Castletownbere on a full-time basis to cater for the large volume of ships using Castletownbere during the peak fishing season.

Mr. J. Walsh: The Minister should keep an eye on Russia.

[1454] Mr. J. Higgins: This arrangement should last at least until mid-June.

The Revenue Commissioners have informed me that they will keep the question of the deployment of Customs staff in Castletownbere under continual review. In this context, the commissioners must have regard to the overall volume of Customs work there and their assessment of the effectiveness of a static Customs presence compared with the current arrangements whereby staff are centralised in Bantry and deployed flexibly as required. Methods of working have, of necessity, to take account of changed circumstances and I am satisfied the Revenue Commissioners have responded appropriately to the new challenges.

Mr. J. Walsh: Bantry is an hour's drive away.

Mr. Sheehan: Deputy Walsh did not use his clout when he was at the Cabinet table.

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Walsh had his say without interruption, except from his colleague on my left.

Mr. J. Higgins: We are all concerned about the drugs problem, particularly with the new dangers following the completion of the Internal Market. The Irish authorities now have a responsibility not only to keep illegal drugs out of Ireland but to prevent this country from being used as a point of entry for drugs intended for elsewhere in the European Union.

The Customs National Drugs Team was set up specifically for this purpose. The CNDT, comprising more than 70 staff, consists of intelligence units, operational units, maritime units and sniffer-dog units which are strategically based at locations throughout the country. [1455] These specialist officials are supplemented by the general cadre of Customs and Excise staff who are also responsible for the detection and prevention of drug smuggling as part of their normal duties.

CNDT staff based in Cork, comprising 16 officers, consists of operational units, intelligence units and a sniffer-dog unit. Intelligence units, each comprising two full-time members of the CNDT, are also based in Bantry and Tralee and are supervised by two higher officers of Customs and Excise who become involved in drugs related work as deemed necessary. All units are mobile and employ the most modern means of communication and have access to aerial and sea surveillance.

Specialist CNDT officers in the Cork and Kerry regions can call on assistance, where the need arises, of other Customs and Excise staff, in particular, the 16 officials attached to mobile task units which operate in their areas. Additionally, they can request the assistance, when necessary, of CNDT staff based in Limerick and Shannon which comprises nine members, including a sniffer-dog unit and a maritime unit.

Experience has shown that intelligence gathering and surveillance, rather than a static presence, are the best means of combating drug smuggling. The CNDT has close liaison with EU counterparts via mutual assistance programmes. The EU, in an effort to strengthen the external frontier, has developed a computerised network of customs information called the Customs Information System. There are now in excess of 300 terminals strategically located throughout the EU. These are currently situated in all the major ports, airports and Customs operational coastal centres. The CIS network gives users access to a number of facilities, for example, database access to shipping movements. However, the primary focus of the CIS system is the ability of [1456] all EU Customs services to despatch and receive at local level timely intelligence on the movements of suspect passengers, freight and transport. CIS provides an inbuilt translation facility which allows EU Customs officials to receive and despatch CIS messages in their own language. Additionally, the CNDT is in the process of negotiating bilateral agreements with all European maritime states on the exchange of intelligence.

The value of good intelligence is demonstrated clearly by the major drugs seizure in the past few days at Dublin Port. A consignment of cannabis resin with a street value estimated at more than £20 million was discovered in a container which arrived from Africa via Antwerp. The discovery was made by Customs staff as a result of an intelligence based operation which also involved international Customs services and there are ongoing inquiries by Customs and the Garda. The Deputy will also be aware that there was another large seizure of ecstasy tablets by the Garda over the weekend. I again congratulate all concerned.

There have, of course, been earlier significant seizures by Customs and the Garda, particularly since 1993, off the south-west and west coasts.

Mr. J. Walsh: Has anybody been arrested?

Mr. J. Higgins: The House has already been advised of the various other measures being taken by the Customs, the Garda and the Naval Service to combat the menace of drugs. My colleague, the Minister for Justice, intimated last night that she will be bringing proposals to Government as soon as possible to ensure the fullest co-ordination and co-operation between all the agencies involved.

[1457] Experience shows, as I indicated, that a flexible approach to the disposition and use of our resources is needed to tackle this problem effectively. I am also hopeful that we may expect further assistance from the European Union in this task.

Mr. J. Walsh: It is not enough, give Michael Carey his job back.

Mr. Sheehan: It is better than what the Deputy did when he was in office.