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Cocaine trade knocking on door of Belfast Titanic Quarter

Jim Cusack looks at how illegal activity in Belfast is linked to Dublin's bitter gang wars

Visitors and residents in Belfast's fashionable Titanic Quarter were surprised by a large armed police presence one Saturday evening in early November.

The major PSNI operation was linked not to the city's remaining republican or loyalist paramilitary groups, but to the professional debut fight of local boxer Paddy Barnes at the Titanic Exhibition Centre.

The double Olympic bronze medallist is signed to the Marbella-based MGM boxing promoters, whose weigh-in event at the Regency Hotel in Dublin in February became the scene for the public assassination of Kinahan mob member David Byrne.

There was no Garda presence at the Regency Hotel weigh-in at which Byrne (32) was gunned down.

However, the PSNI was apparently taking no chances of a repeat of the scenes in Dublin.

The event in Belfast passed off peacefully and Paddy Barnes, who has chosen to remain living and training in his native Belfast rather than relocate to Marbella, won the bout after his opponent, Bulgarian Stefan Slavchev, was disqualified for lifting Barnes over his shoulder.

MGM promoters is run by Matthew Macklin, who has no involvement in crime, nor has Paddy Barnes.

The irony of a major policing operation being mounted in Belfast because of gang warfare in the Republic's capital city was not lost on those inhabitants who recalled the days of the Troubles, when Belfast was known around the world for its terrorist atrocities.

The Titanic Quarter is to Belfast what the Docklands redevelopment area is to Dublin.

In the narrow inner city and outer suburban mainly public authority estates, the city is also witnessing a significant level of gang-related violence.

Six and possibly seven murders in the city in 2016 are linked to gangs, either republican or loyalist, involved in the drugs trade or in extorting money from the dealers.

The cocaine which is sniffed in Belfast nightclubs is almost certainly supplied from Dublin.

More and more evidence of links between the Belfast and Dublin gangs is emerging.

Arrests and seizures in the city relate directly to supply networks between the two cities, with most of the drugs travelling north.

In Irish criminal history, 2016 will be remembered as the year of 'Open Season' on the Hutch family from north inner Dublin and their associates in the city's underworld.

Twelve out of a total of 17 gang-related murders can be directly or indirectly linked to the 'feud' as it was still referred to in the first bloody months after the execution of David Byrne.

After the murder of Byrne, the gangs who act as distributors for the Kinahan 'product' in Dublin were offered an opportunity to kill members of the Hutch family and any of their associates either for payment (it is said that £25,000 in cash is not an unusual blood payment) or for their own reasons if these coincided with the Kinahan war on the Hutch gang.

The reaction was swift and lasted the entire year. Eddie Hutch (59), Gerry's brother, was shot dead two days after the Regency Hotel attack. Eddie, a taxi driver and not regarded as a major crime figure, was gunned down at his home in Poplar Row in the north inner city. In the spree of murders that followed, a 'republican' associate of the Hutch gang, Michael Barr (34), was shot dead at the Sunset Bar on Summerhill on April 25.

Strabane man Barr is said to have had close associations with an IRA faction in Northern Ireland which has carried out several murders.

Gardai still believe that there will be some form of retaliation for this murder, although this would pitch a small and loosely organised republican terror group against the might of the Kinahan organisation. The latest 'feud' murder was that of Noel Kirwan on December 22. Kirwan (62) was also a former Provo who worked for the Hutch family, who he had known since his youth in north inner Dublin.

It is said in Dublin that Kirwan had managed to keep a sufficiently low profile that he had hoped to avoid the attentions of the Kinahan death squads. But he had attended his old friend Eddie Hutch's funeral and was seen in the company of Gerry Hutch.

That sealed his fate.

Just after Christmas, the Garda issued a statement saying that their actions had prevented a further 15 murders during the year.

Most of this was a result of information reaching detectives in the city from old and reliable underworld sources.

As with most feuds, the Kinahans' destruction of the Hutch organisation stems from police action in seizing shipments of drugs.

A reputed €2m (£1.7m) of cocaine was being transported by Gerry Hutch's nephew Gary from Spain to the UK when it was intercepted by British police and customs last year.

Hutch was unable to repay his debt.

Gary Hutch (34) was shot dead at an apartment complex in Marbella in September 2015 and it was this that led to the shooting in the Regency Hotel.

One senior garda offering his opinion of the 2016 murder toll pointed to the grim irony that almost every time police make a major drugs seizure, someone somewhere incurs a major debt and, under the rules of drug trafficking, pays with their life.

It is, he said, an unending cycle so long as the 'war on drugs' policy of the Irish and most other Western nations remains in place.

No change in this criminalisation policy is being considered, according to Dublin sources, even though the State has legalised the use of cannabis for medical reasons.

The prohibition policy costs the Irish taxpayer at least €2bn (£1.7bn), soaking up a huge amount of the Department of Justice's €2.3bn (£2bn) annual budget.

The United States and other countries are now moving towards decriminalisation, regulation and taxation, having admitted that the 'war on drugs' is unwinnable.

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