By Jim Cusack
New operation to crack down on cattle rustlers
Gardai and the PSNI have joined forces in a new cross-border operation against cattle rustlers who have close links to IRA fuel smugglers, the Sunday Independent has learned.
PSNI officers and officials from the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture raided an illegal abattoir near the village of Camlough, south Armagh, last Monday and removed machinery used to butcher stolen cattle. It is believed a truckload of offal dumped in the Ravensdale area north of Dundalk in January was from this plant. Toxic sludge from diesel "washing" was found mixed with the offal.
Some 900 cattle have been rustled north and south in the past three years, worth an estimated €1.7m. Sheep rustling is also on the rise with 200 incidents reported last year alone.
Gardai believe the trade is centred on south Armagh and is controlled by IRA figures, including a senior Provo who was arrested and questioned over the murder of 21-year-old Paul Quinn in north Monaghan in October 2007. Quinn was murdered by a 12-strong gang after he had a confrontation with a local IRA leader.
A senior garda source said both forces are taking the issue very seriously because of the potential damage it could cause to the island's beef industry over traceability standards.
The sources said the illegal meat is being sold by unscrupulous butchers and by door-to-door delivery in the border area.
Cattle rustling has been causing serious anger among the farming communities on either side of the border. The thieves have been particularly targeting farms in the Clogher Valley area of Co Tyrone, but have also stolen more than €100,000 worth of cattle in Monaghan and Cavan in the past year.
Fine Gael chairman Charlie Flanagan last month called for the setting up of a special garda division to deal with the issue which he said had spread from the border area further south.
Senior garda sources said the issue is already a priority and revealed they have been working very closely with the PSNI.
According to figures released by Flanagan, 130 cattle were stolen in 2012. But in the first 11 months of 2013, this number soared to more than 300, "spread across 20 counties".
The only counties that did not experience incidents of cattle-rustling last year were Wicklow, Wexford, Kilkenny, Offaly, Longford and Dublin.
Rustling is a particularly damaging activity for the farming community because it is not possible to insure cattle.
After 21 cattle were stolen from a shed at Corwillan, near Ballybay, Co Monaghan, in January, the Irish Farmers' Association in Co Monaghan appealed to all herd owners to step up security at their farms to prevent further livestock losses to cross-border cattle rustling gangs.
Two weeks ago, a south Armagh farmer had 20 cattle stolen the night after he bought them at Crossmaglen market. It is believed he was watched buying the cattle at the market.
The cross-border policing operation led to the operation last week in south Armagh when three premises were raided. One was found to be the illegal abattoir.
A spokesperson from the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) told the Sunday Independent: "This is extremely frustrating for farmers who work hard to meet EU animal health and welfare requirements and traceability standards. It puts the reputation of the whole industry at risk and we fully support the investigation."
DUP MLA for Newry and Armagh, William Irwin, said the health risk to the public of contaminated meat from illegal plants could be "catastrophic".
"There is a huge emphasis placed on traceability of meat products from the farm gate to the supermarket shelf. This is for very good reasons, given the recent scares over horse meat," he said
SDLP MLA for Newry and Armagh, Dominic Bradley described the discovery of the illegal slaughter as extremely worrying.
"People want to be assured that the food they are eating is safe, and it is important that we are made aware as soon as possible just what is involved in today's operation in relation to food safety," he said.
The raids in south Armagh also followed the rustling of 14 bullocks worth stg£22,000 (€26,500) from a farm near Dungannon, Co Tyrone. The UFU said cattle rustling was a particular problem in the south Tyrone area, with "something like 173 cattle" disappearing since January 2012.
Garda sources said those behind the rustling and illegal abattoir have very close links to the former IRA leadership in south Armagh which has control of the multi-million euro diesel smuggling trade.
Last week Northern Ireland Customs revealed that it had detected illicit diesel in 467 fuel outlets in Northern Ireland and estimated that 12 per cent of the market is now illicit. Almost all of this trade is based in south Armagh.