Home > Cross-border organised crime: threat assessment 2018.

Guiney, Ciara (2019) Cross-border organised crime: threat assessment 2018. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 69, Spring 2019, pp. 20-21.

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In September 2018, An Garda Síochána (AGS) and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) published their biannual cross-border organised crime threat assessment.1 The aim of the report was to provide insight into criminal activity on the island of Ireland.


Abuse of Common Travel Area

The Common Travel Area (CTA), which exists between the Republic of Ireland (ROI) and the United Kingdom (UK), permits the free movement of goods, money, people and information. The CTA has mainly had a positive impact on individuals residing in both areas. However, the land border (approx. 224 miles) that lies between ROI and Northern Ireland (NI) is currently open and not subject to checks by customs or law enforcement. This leaves ROI and NI exposed to criminal activities, such as trafficking contraband and immigration crime, carried out by organised crime groups (OCGs). Another challenge noted is that the land border will also separate the UK from the European Union (EU) post-Brexit. In the event of the UK successfully leaving the EU, it is likely that OCGs will adapt to any changes that arise in the CTA; hence, cross-border criminality is expected to increase. That said, interagency cooperation will continue to target any abuse of the CTA that arises.


Organised crime groups

It is estimated that approximately 50% of OCGs have strong relationships and interactions on both sides of the border. Cross-border activity by mobile organised crime groups (MOCGs) are considered an all-island problem and have significant impact on domestic burglary in both jurisdictions. The majority of MOCGs are thought to originate in Dublin and involve extended family networks. They have extensive skills, are organised, sophisticated and forensically aware, and illustrate elevated risk-taking behaviour on roads. At this stage, it is not known whether Brexit will have an impact on these groups. The Cross Border Joint Agency Task Force has allocated resources to address criminality by MOCGs via joint interagency action.


Cross-border organised crime: drugs

Similar to the 2016 assessment, the report has highlighted that drugs and drug-related criminality has remained a concern throughout the island. Although ‘traditional’ drug importation routes are unchanged, the emergence of the dark web along with new psychoactive substances (NPS) and misuse of prescription medications have resulted in changes in drug abuse and OCG criminality.


‘Traditional’ drugs remain prominent. For example: 

  • Cannabis continues to be the most prevalent drug used/abused on the Island. At €29/£20 per gram, it is viewed by OCGs involved in wholesale importation and supply as profitable. Cannabis herb blocks or cultivated cannabis plants are mainly seized in ROI. However, other products, for example, cannabis resin and cannabis oil, have also been detained. Irish national OCGs are deeply implicated in this area controlling routes and grow houses.
  • Improved economic conditions recently have resulted in increased demand for cocaine and MDMA. Although it is possible to sell these drugs on the darknet, they do form a small part of OCG importations. OCGs that participate in ‘poly drug dealing’ are mainly smaller than ‘traditional wholesale importers’. As a result, they can pose issues for law enforcement when trying to target the problem (p. 7).
  • Heroin continues to be a problem across Ireland. While the most problematic area is Greater Dublin, in recent years similar problems have arisen in small urban centres and rural towns and villages. The majority of opiate users reside in Dublin (71%) and are over 35 years of age (>50%). Heroin issues in ROI are viewed as ‘stable and entrenched’ (p. 7). While in NI, the most problematic area is Belfast city centre, where drug use can be observed every day on the streets.
  • In contrast to previous assessments, crack cocaine has recently emerged as an issue for law enforcement agencies and communities. For now, it is not viewed as a nationwide issue, but it is believed that it will need to be targeted in the future.
  • Synthetic opioids have been a characteristic of Irish OCG activity since 2016. Although reported seizures of these products are low, only 0.02 mg of synthetic opioid carfentanil is needed to produce a fatal overdose. While this is not a crisis in ROI and NI currently, there is evidence to suggest that OCGs are selling products on the premise that they are heroin but in actual fact are heroin mixed with synthetic opioids and/or bulking agents.
  • Another problem is that some OCGs are introducing synthetic opioids into the drug supply chain that is placing drug users at considerable risk. This problem has been identified as an area that requires ongoing attention and monitoring.
  • Prescription medication is an issue across ROI and NI and involves the importation, manufacture and sale of pharmaceutical products. Benzodiazepines are popular in individuals using heroin, managing pain and trying to improve cognitive and/or physical function.
  • Another emerging trend is the use of amphetamines by individuals attending tertiary education. Targeting the illicit sale of these products is more and more challenging. However, as prescription drug abuse increases so too will be the issues around it. 

Cross-border activity

Primarily, the cross-border elements of drug crime across Ireland centres on relationships between OCGs in ROI and NI in the areas of control and supply. Although the links between ROI and NI OCGs are extensive, collaboration among foreign national OCGs are stronger, as they see Ireland as one market.


The most important supply route on the island is between Dublin and Belfast. This is due to excellent infrastructure linking both areas via motorways and transport systems. Irish OCGs make it possible for NI OCGs to access European drug markets, such as Spain, the Netherlands, and the UK. In consequence, joint collaborations between the PSNI and AGS often involve collaborating with international agencies with the aim of stopping drug supply routes north and south of the border.



1  Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Síochána (2018) Cross border organised crime: threat assessment 2018. Belfast and Dublin: Department of Justice (UK) and Department of Justice and Equality (ROI). https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/29908/

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