Fears of cocaine surge in 'soft touch' Northern Ireland as Christmas party season approaches
A huge spike in the use of cocaine is expected across Northern Ireland in run-up to Christmas, experts have warned.
It follows the seizure of 50kg of the drug in Co Tyrone and a separate seizure of 20kg of the same drug in The Netherlands which was destined for Co Fermanagh.
The total street value of both finds could be up to £14m, depending on the purity of the seizures.
Police have been praised for stopping the supply of drugs into Northern Ireland but the finds have also sparked fears the region has become a "soft touch" for international crime gangs.
An MLA and member of the justice committee said the stalemate over the powers of the National Crime Agency here were "turning our province into the favoured European distribution hub for drug gangs".
And Alex Bunting from the Forum for Action on Substance Abuse (FASA) predicted a surge in the use of cocaine across the province in the coming weeks. He said drug dealers had told him their business can treble during the festive season.
"Cocaine has been a recreational drug of choice for many years in Belfast and other cities and towns across the north, so it's not a new phenomenon," he said.
"But we need to be very vigilant because if there is significant product coming in supply increases as does demand as more people take it, it's more available and the price goes down.
"People are maybe going out three or four nights instead of maybe once at the weekend, so it definitely has an impact."
Police seized 50kg of cocaine in Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, after receiving a tip-off. It had been packed into suitcases and hidden inside a furniture delivery container.
It is believed to have been discovered as the lorry was being unloaded. More than 30 police officers attended the scene with sniffer dogs.
There is no suggestion the owners of the premises in Ballygawley were aware of the drugs.
Senior politicians said the huge seizure demonstrated the urgent need for the National Crime Agency to be given full investigatory powers in Northern Ireland.
It is currently restricted in its operations due to nationalist concerns over the FBI-style body's accountability.
Ulster Unionist MLA and justice committee member Tom Elliott said Northern Ireland was becoming a soft-touch for European organised crime gangs.
"The sums involved in the drugs trade indicate that these criminal gangs are not hampered by a lack of resources," he said.
"These recent massive seizures of consignments of drugs confirm the worst fears of the Ulster Unionist Party that the lack of a fully functioning NCA in Northern Ireland is turning our province into the favoured European distribution hub for drug gangs, who view us as an easy back door route to peddle their poison in the United Kingdom."
Fellow Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Lord Morrow of the DUP welcomed the seizure, but said the discovery was also hugely alarming.
"I am gravely concerned about the quantity of drugs coming in and the organised criminal gangs operating these enterprises," he said.
Former police Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan added: "Sadly, we now seem to be a soft touch. We are behind the game with the rest of the UK and the rest of Ireland."
The Tyrone find is more than the total quantity of cocaine seized in the past three years - 49kg - recovered in more than 1,000 seizures. Last year two people died here every week as a result of drug abuse. Figures for 1999-2009 showed prescription medicines mentioned in more death certificates than anything else. Heroin, ecstasy and cocaine were the most common illegal substances.