THERE was a lot of activity on Skibbereen’s Main Street on Monday as Revenue officers and members of the gardai swooped on a van and seized 403,000 cigarettes, worth over €200,000, which were hidden inside mannequins.
One eyewitness described seeing Revenue officers and members of the gardai surrounding the black, UK-registered Volkswagen Transporter in downtown Skibbereen at around 3.30pm on Monday afternoon.
The van – which was parked in a disabled parking zone outside Dan Cleary’s Pharmacy – was the focus of intense activity for about ten minutes.
One witness told The Southern Star: ‘We were all looking out the door and wondering, “What’s going on?” We saw the officers all gathered around the back of the van. They were taking out boxes and searching them. And when it was all over, we saw one of the guards driving the van away.’
She said the search ‘happened very quickly’ but it was quite dramatic because the Revenue Officers were all wearing their official jackets and used surgical gloves during the course of the search.
Another woman said she had a feeling that there was ‘something up’ because earlier that day she saw a garda checkpoint outside the Rugby Club, and another mother, driving her kids to school, said she was conscious of seeing ‘a squad car circling the town all morning’.
There were three members of the gardai involved in the operation. They were on hand to assist a team of 12, or more, Revenue Officers, who had been deployed to search a commercial premises in Cork city, as well as a follow-up search of a house in Caheragh, shortly after they seized the ‘NZ Slim’ and ‘Septs’ cigarettes – worth €201,500 – at Skibbereen’s Main Street.
Dan Cleary was working on Monday afternoon and even though it was ‘pelting rain’ he said it was obvious that there was ‘something unusual’ going on in front of his pharmacy.
‘There was a lot of commotion. I saw a lot of Customs men and women, and guards wearing surgical gloves. They jumped into the van and started searching it. We were curious, but we didn’t want to pry. We didn’t want to go too near but we could see everything because it was all happening outside the door.
‘It was a quiet day. There was nothing else happening so it was exciting for ten minutes, even if it was all done so calmly and professionally. We didn’t really talk about it on Tuesday. It was only when it made the news that we realised what was happening outside our door.’
Cian Devine O’Sullivan, the pharmacist at Horgan’s across the street, recalled: ‘It was tipping rain and everyone was on the street, standing in doors, holding umbrellas. We had no idea what was happening but it was a bit of drama.’
A customer in Horgan’s also commented on the number of officers involved and the fact that the teams comprised a large number of female Revenue officers.
In addition to the Skibbereen haul – which represents a potential loss to the Exchequer of €159,000 approximately – a spokesperson for the Office of the Revenue Commissioners confirmed that their sniffer dog, Harvey, was involved in the search of a commercial premises in Cork city.
The search in the city resulted in a further seizure of 42,000 unstamped ‘NZ Slim’ cigarettes that have a retail value of €42,000, and represent a potential loss to the Exchequer of just over €16,500.
The spokesperson confirmed that the cigarettes were ‘very well concealed’ inside a consignment of mannequin torsos, and that the mannequins had to be cut open to reveal the black market goods.
Following the searches in Cork, Skibbereen and Caheragh, two Polish men and one Lithuanian man, all in their 30s, were interviewed and the spokesperson confirmed that a file is being prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions.
‘These seizures,’ the spokesperson added, ‘are part of Revenue’s ongoing operations targeting the supply and sale of illegal cigarettes. If businesses or members of the public have any information regarding the smuggling or sale of illegal cigarettes or tobacco, they can contact Revenue in confidence on free phone number 1800 295295.’