Home > Exploring serious and organised crime across Ireland and the UK.

Guiney, Ciara (2022) Exploring serious and organised crime across Ireland and the UK. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 82, Summer 2022, pp. 15-16.

PDF (Drugnet Ireland 82)

In March 2021, the Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy, with the support of the British Embassy in Dublin, launched a report examining serious and organised crime in Ireland and the United Kingdom (UK).1 The aim of this report was to conduct a qualitative assessment of information that was publicly available about serious and organised crime to determine how criminality occurs across and between Ireland and the UK. The report considers methods and activities that make up serious and organised crime along with the wider criminal markets where criminal behaviour takes place. It focuses on three issues: human trafficking, drug trafficking,
and economic crime.


Over 300 documents from a range of sources, such as journals, book chapters, speeches, presentations, expert blogs, and researcher blogs were identified in the literature review. Additionally, reports published by government departments, law enforcement agencies, and advisory bodies were included along with reports published by charities, non-governmental organisations, and think tanks. Due to the transnational nature of criminality in the UK and Ireland, the author also drew on European and international literature related to serious and organised crime. In order to get further insight into serious and organised crime in these jurisdictions, semi-structured interviews were carried out with law enforcement practitioners (n=15) from An Garda Síochána (AGS) and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

Key findings

Cross-cutting criminal enablers

Four ‘cross-cutting’ enablers that made different types of serious and organised crime possible across Irish and UK jurisdictions were identified and examined.

1    Digital technology: Use of technology has become the most significant enabler of serious and organised crime. As acknowledged by the European Commission, approximately 85% of all crimes are considered to have a digital component.2 Secure communications platforms that avail of end-to-end encryption, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, have contributed to a changed landscape which is resilient in the face of law enforcement takedowns.

2    Exploitation of national borders: While criminality online has increased, exploiting national borders remains essential for all types of serious and organised criminal activity; for example, in the movement of drugs, people, firearms, and cash. The land border between Northern Ireland (NI) and Ireland has provided many layers and facets in the facilitation of criminal activity, influencing how offenders and markets operate on the island of Ireland and within the Common Travel Area. Moreover, cross-border cooperation between organised crime groups (OCGs) in NI and Ireland is well-known, as are groups that commit crime in both jurisdictions.1

3    Professional and public sector corruption: OCGs count on the involvement of ‘active or passive’ corrupt individuals working in professional and public sectors (p. 20).1 Fortunately, corruption within Irish law enforcement and justice agencies is rare but remains a risk for both Ireland and the UK.

4    Criminal use of firearms: In the main, illegal firearm possession and use in Ireland and the UK remains low when compared with international standards. However, there is evidence of more firearm seizures alongside drug seizures and more firearm-related violence among OCGs involved in drug trafficking in Ireland when compared with similar groups in the UK. 

Modern slavery and human trafficking

While slavery and human trafficking is closely linked to serious and organised crime, it is not straightforward but more ‘complicated and nuanced’ (p. 23).1 The author examined the relationship between human trafficking and human smuggling and stressed how victims may move between both several times on their journey. Typically, human smuggling ends when the victim arrives at their destination; however, often the victim is exploited en route or at their final destination or both. The main markets, methods, and offenders involved are considered in the report. Trafficking is centred on three markets: criminal exploitation, labour exploitation, and sexual exploitation.1 In Ireland, sexual exploitation is prominent, followed by labour exploitation and then criminal exploitation. Victims of trafficking are exploited in the drugs trade; for example, in the cultivation of cannabis where they are used for supervising plant growth, drying out their leaves, removing buds, and packing bags for onward transportation and sale.1

Drug trafficking

The UK and Ireland are considered ‘highly lucrative markets’ for criminal networks involved in the importation and supply of illicit drugs (p. 30).1 Trafficking methods that are frequently used include air; maritime via roll-on/roll-off ferries and foot passengers; and the postal system via regular mail or courier services. The report explored supply and retail trades in cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and synthetic drugs. The movement of drugs into and within Ireland and the UK displayed similar features. However, divergences were also evident, particularly in the amphetamines market and in the retail supply of heroin and crack cocaine, which for now is only evident in the UK. Due to the close proximity and relationship between Ireland and the UK, the Common Travel Area, the ‘all-island nature’ of the drugs trade in Ireland and NI (p. 37), the author has called for vigilance as changes in trends in one country will likely influence the other.

Economic crime

Due to the similarities between the British and Irish economies, both countries are vulnerable to illicit asset laundering from overseas and/or domestic criminality. However, there are differences between both jurisdictions: in the UK, ‘a sophisticated laundering infrastructure’ has been documented and threatens the existing financial system (p. 43).1 In contrast, in Ireland, the targeting of domestic criminal finance has presented a challenging environment for OCGs involved in money laundering, who lean more towards cash. Overseas illicit financial movement is currently underdeveloped in Ireland as is the use of cryptocurrencies for laundering purposes.  

Limitations of study

The author acknowledged several limitations in the report. For example, while the literature review was extensive it relied on publicly available data and did not include sensitive intelligence that would normally be included in organised threat assessments. Nor were insights from network analyses or interviews with offenders themselves included. Due to the thematic focus of the report, it was not possible to include other types of information. Time constraints also resulted in the prioritisation of some topics over others. The broad geographic area of Ireland and the UK resulted in the loss of information that might have been gleaned at a local and regional level.


Several recommendations were put forward by the author, as follows.

  1. There should be increased drug market monitoring.
  2. Comprehensive research projects funded by Irish and UK justice agencies should map the nature and scale of human trafficking between the island of Ireland and the UK.
  3. UK and Irish agencies should consider harmonising data collection and analysis on human trafficking.
  4. The Irish Department of Justice should consider establishing an independent ‘technology futures’ research advisory group.
  5. A joint research programme should explore and monitor the role of crypto-assets in serious and organised crime.
  6. There should be a bilateral research project on corrupted transport workers.
  7. Joint projects between AGS, the National Crime Agency, Europol, and Dutch and Belgian authorities should be considered to actively monitor any changes in drug flows to the UK from the Netherlands and Belgium regarding nature and scale of displacement to UK and/or Irish ports.
  8. The Department of Justice and Central Bank of Ireland should review the threat to the Irish economy from the laundering of illicit finance from overseas.
  9. The Department of Justice and AGS should consider the production of regular strategic threat assessments on serious and organised crime in Ireland based on all-source reporting from across all State agencies.
  10. Civil society organisations and research institutions across Ireland and the UK should explore practical, collaborative mechanisms to promote independent analysis of serious and organised crime. 


This report is a valuable first step at bringing together existing publicly available knowledge and information and has provided a partial snapshot of organised and serious crime across Ireland and the UK. As acknowledged by the author, there were several limitations mainly due to lack of research in serious and organised crime in the Irish context. Some of the inferences made in this report were informed by the Drug markets and crime national reports, published by the Health Research Board, who is the Irish Focal Point to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).3 The EMCDDA monitors drug-related activities across Europe.

1    Chance A (2022) Exploring serious and organised crime across Ireland and the UK: towards a shared understanding of a shared threat. Dublin: The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/35946/

2    European Commission (2020) Communication from the Commission: a counter-terrorism agenda for the EU: anticipate, prevent, protect, respond. COM(2020) 795 final. Brussels: European Commission. Available online at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52020DC0795&from=EN

3    Health Research Board (2022) National reports. Dublin: Health Research Board. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/php/annual_report.php

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 82, Summer 2022
September 2022
Page Range
pp. 15-16
Health Research Board
Issue 82, Summer 2022

Repository Staff Only: item control page