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tensions £3m Belfast docklands drug haul was to be shared by two paramilitary crime gangs

Detectives initially discovered £1.8m worth of drugs before another £1.2m was found in a truck

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Detective Inspector Conor Sweeney, from the Organised Crime Unit,  as Police have discovered an additional £1.2m worth of drugs hidden in a lorry stopped at Belfast Harbour. Pic Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

Detective Inspector Conor Sweeney, from the Organised Crime Unit, as Police have discovered an additional £1.2m worth of drugs hidden in a lorry stopped at Belfast Harbour. Pic Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

Detective Inspector Conor Sweeney, from the Organised Crime Unit, as Police have discovered an additional £1.2m worth of drugs hidden in a lorry stopped at Belfast Harbour. Pic Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

Last week's record docklands drug haul was to be shared by two paramilitary organised crime gangs, the Sunday World can reveal.

The £3 million shipment was a smorgasbord of Class A and Class B drugs and was destined for East Belfast UVF.

Detectives initially discovered £1.8 million haul when they stopped a lorry at Belfast Harbour in the early hours of February 12.

However, acting on further intelligence, a follow-up search of the vehicle uncovered another £1.2 million worth of drugs hidden under the floor of the trailer.

The Sunday World understands the narcotics were to be split between East Belfast UVF and West Belfast UDA.

Both units have become pariahs within their organisations and are widely regarded as two of the North's most active organised drug gangs.

Loyalist sources in the east of the city said there is anger over a possible link with the UDA from the west.

According to sources, Woodvale commander Jim Spence oversees a huge drug operation across the Shankill, north Belfast and parts of north Down.

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Detective Inspector Conor Sweeney, from the Organised Crime Unit with the seized drugs Pic: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Detective Inspector Conor Sweeney, from the Organised Crime Unit with the seized drugs Pic: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Detective Inspector Conor Sweeney, from the Organised Crime Unit with the seized drugs Pic: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

He has been seen in the east of the city in the company of known UVF leaders - according to our source he was spotted having a drink in a social club in the east of the city.

Spence has also been seen meeting senior loyalists in a car in the car park of a hotel.

His visit to the east has angered members both there and in the west of the city where he is regarded with deep suspicion.

East Belfast UVF is essentially a breakaway unit from the main organisation. The leadership has long disregarded instruction from the Shankill leadership and has built a sophisticated organised crime operation.

Similarly Spence, despite his unpopularity and pressure for him to be stood down, is said to remain a UDA commander in Woodvale and controls the group's rackets.

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Spence has previously denied any involvement in criminality or membership of the UDA.

One senior figure from the east is a regular visitor to the Shankill and is a close associate of one of Spence's few trusted lieutenants, who has forged close ties with dissidents, further heightening speculation of ever-closer ties between the groups.

The Sunday World now understands the UVF on the Shankill have told their UDA counterparts they will no longer take part in joint meetings should Spence be involved.

The rival groups have held a series of joint meetings to discuss issues such as parades on the Shankill and the ongoing protest campaign against the Northern Ireland Protocol.

"We simply don't trust him," said our source, "even his own men don't trust him, there's no way we're sitting at the table with him."

Speculation of closer links between the renegade gangs comes a week after Spence's position was under question following the appearance of graffiti close to his Woodvale home.

It prompted unfounded speculation he had been stood down. Now his dealings with East Belfast UVF will anger people in both organisations.

Meanwhile, East Belfast has another headache in the wake of mammoth drugs seizure. Aside from losing such a huge shipment, they have to contemplate the possibility of an informant in their ranks.

Members of the Organised Crime Task Force were acting on information received when they intercepted the truck - and also when they returned for the second find.

"Whoever provided the information knew exactly how much was on that lorry and was able to tell the cops 'there should be more'," said our source.

Police have described the seizure, one of the biggest ever seen in Northern Ireland, as "very significant".

Detective Inspector Conor Sweeney from the PSNI Organised Crime Unit said the operation was part of efforts to target large-scale importations of drugs at harbours and ports.

"Initial searches uncovered approximately £1.8 million of drugs. Since then further searches have located, concealed under the floor of the trailer, an additional approximately £1.2 million worth.

"That is both class A cocaine and class B cannabis and a combined value of roughly £3 million. It is obviously a very significant seizure. It is actually one of the largest single seizures that we have had."

He said the capture of the drugs was part of Operation Fusion which is specifically targeting the importation of drugs through ports and our harbours to supply organised crime gangs.

Fusion resulted in seizures totalling £20 million over the last 14 months.

"We are very keen that we build on this success and that we keep getting these seizures. We can't make drug seizures like this without the help of the local community."

Mr Sweeney said that large-scale importations of drugs were typically used to supply multiple organised crime gangs, including paramilitary groupings.

"It is terrifying to think of what that money could be used to fund, in terms of buying weaponry, being used to further exert their influence and grip over the local communities.

"To be able to make a seizure such as this and the other ones we have had in the past, it is not just hitting one organised crime gang, it is hitting multiple organised crime gangs.

"They have come in from outside of Northern Ireland, so that has been facilitated by organised crime gangs in other countries, including England and possibly further abroad.

"We have our organised crime gangs within Northern Ireland that are working in contact with them."

East Belfast UVF is known to have forged links with elements of the Kinahan crime cartel who have opened a number of supply lines to the North.

"We do live in a multinational world and everybody is connected to everybody else and organised crime gangs are no different, they will communicate with their counterparts in other countries and they will try to arrange the facilitation of this type of material," Mr Sweeney said.

richard.sullivan@sundayworld.com

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