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LUCRATIVE BUSINESS Gang linked to former RIRA boss Liam Campbell suspected of running counterfeit fag factory

'Give or take a few months lost due to issues round Covid and a dip in supply, they made well over €15 million since they started'

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The Armagh cig factory busted by customs and police

The Armagh cig factory busted by customs and police

The Armagh cig factory busted by customs and police

A smuggling gang closely linked to former Real IRA operations chief Liam Campbell is suspected of being behind a multi-million counterfeit cigarette racket busted in Co Armagh.

The Sunday World can reveal that police suspect the criminals - close associates of the well-known Dundalk-based smuggler - had been running the lucrative illicit fag factory smashed by customs and the PSNI.

The recovery of the cigarettes, along with 11 tonnes of loose tobacco, in Camlough and Silverbridge earlier this month would have resulted in an estimated £8.3 million in lost duty and taxes, the HMRC said.

Materials and equipment, along with tobacco shredding, cigarette rolling and packaging machinery - part of the suspected illicit tobacco production - were also seized by officials.

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Liam Campbell

Liam Campbell

Liam Campbell

Sources told this newspaper last week that Campbell's close associates were being probed over the huge haul.

"It was an open secret those close to Campbell had been running this cross-border racket for about two years," they said.

"They were making some money... 100 cases a week at €1,800 a case.

"Give or take a few months lost due to issues round Covid and a dip in supply, they made well over €15 million since they started.

"The seizure was a loss, but it's a drop in the ocean to these guys considering what they've already pocketed."

The cross-border gang are said to have learned their craft from Campbell, who was found civilly liable for the 1998 Omagh bomb.

The former Real IRA director of operations (58) once ran one of Ireland's biggest cigarettes smuggling networks stretching across both sides of the border.

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Campbell, who has a conviction for Real IRA membership, is currently trying to appeal a High Court decision surrendering him to Lithuanian authorities over a gun-smuggling racket.

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He has been battling extradition for more than 12 years and wants the Court of Appeal to overturn a decision by the High Court surrendering him to Lithuanian prosecutors.

The authorities there allege that he was involved in the smuggling of weapons in support of the Real IRA between the end of 2006 and early 2007.

Campbell's legal team had objected to his surrender based on the length of time he had been subject to the warrant and had argued that he could be subjected to "inhuman or degrading treatment" in prison there.

In 2003, while serving a five-year prison sentence in the Republic for Real IRA membership, the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) secured a landmark judgment against him.

The Dublin High Court ordered him to hand over almost €1 million.

It was after CAB issued a tax bill on Campbell following his arrest at Portlaoise jail under the Taxes Consolidation Act.

A year-long investigation into the dissident's finances by gardaí and Revenue officials attached to the CAB discovered that Campbell had put €635,000 in an investment scheme in 1998 and his policy was near maturity.

The money was initially placed in a bank in Dundalk in a single lodgement by a man using a false name.

Immediately after Campbell's conviction a major operation swung into action. Gardaí were already aware that the father of two was heavily involved in cross-border smuggling, particularly of drink and tobacco, and during a search of his home at Upper Faughart in 2000 gardaí found 96 magnums of champagne among other items that were to be used as evidence against him at his subsequent trial.

Up to then, Campbell had no criminal convictions but he had been high on the list of subversive suspects since the formation of the Real IRA in early 1998.

Until his arrest by gardaí he had been regarded as effectively second-in-command of the RIRA.

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