Dissident republicans accused of swapping weapons for drugs
Rosie Cowan, Ireland correspondent
The Guardian, Wednesday 15 October 2003 02.53 BST
Renegade republican terrorists are trading guns for drugs with some of the UK's most dangerous criminal gangs, according to an Irish government minister.
Willie O'Dea, the junior justice minister who represents Limerick in the Dublin parliament, said large families with relatives in cities such as Manchester and Birmingham were setting up the illegal weapons deals between Irish paramilitaries and British mobsters.
An investigation by BBC Radio 4's File on 4 revealed that firearms were being supplied by the Continuity IRA, a violent offshoot of the Provisional IRA opposed to the Northern Irish peace process.
The Continuity IRA is particularly active around Limerick, nicknamed Kalashnikov city because of a recent upsurge in fatal shootings related to turf wars between families with members involved in drugs and racketeering.
"Some of the people involved in crime in Limerick have also got a base in the UK, in and around Manchester and various cities in the centre of the UK," said Mr O'Dea. "The reports I've heard would indicate those people are travelling between Ireland and the UK and are involved in various types of smuggling which involved both jurisdictions, smuggling drugs and guns."
Police sources in Belfast and Dublin said all paramilitary groups were involved to varying degrees in smuggling and other illegal moneymaking ventures.
Sources within the National Criminal Intelligence Service said they were aware of an Irish dissident link, although it was difficult to estimate how many weapons were entering the UK from this source.
A former Home Office-funded researcher claimed that in one operation, guns were smuggled to Manchester in furniture vans where one of the city's most notorious street gangs handed over drugs for them. But Greater Manchester police said they had no firm evidence that the guns came from the Irish Republic.
Community workers said guns were being sold from the car boots of vehicles cruising various parts of Birmingham. Charlene Ellis, 18, and 17-year-old Letisha Shakespeare were shot dead in the city's Aston district on New Year's day, in a feud between two rival gangs.
Gun crime in England and Wales increased by 35% last year. Of nearly 10,000 incidents, most were in towns and cities, but there was also a rise in firearms crime in rural areas.
Recent murders - including those of Marian Bates, a Nottingham jewellery shop owner, David King, a bouncer with criminal links shot dead outside a gym in Hertfordshire, and seven-year-old Toni Ann Byfield, shot dead with her father in London last month - have highlighted the issue.
A five-year mandatory sentence for carrying a firearm has done little to deter the culprits. Police say semiautomatics can be bought in London for £200-£300. Handguns are being imported from eastern Europe and beyond, and there is also a growing trade in converting fake guns to fire live ammunition.
• Leading loyalist Jim Simpson, known as "the Bacardi brigadier", is believed to have fled to Scotland after he failed to overthrow the leadership of the Ulster Defence Association in north Belfast in a dispute over money. Several houses and business premises were attacked during the attempted coup on Monday.