Arms: Northern Ireland's import-export business

Patrick Corrigan
8 September 2008

Patrick Corrigan, (Amnesty Blogs: Belfast and Beyond): At the risk of coming across as Forrest Gump with bad timing (see my recent Belfast and Beyond post: ('One night (not) in Bangkok'), last Tuesday I sort of stumbled across the Belfast end of an international arms bust.

As I passed the Europa Hotel, I noticed a squad of heavily armed police moving in on the hotel entrance, shouting instructions and organising vehicles. Inside they were arresting a Dublin man as part of an international police operation which also led to arrests and weapons seizures in Amsterdam, Zaandam and Dublin.

It seems that in total about 230 automatic pistols and sub-machine guns with silencers, laser targetting devices, various other weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition were uncovered in the raids. The deadly arsenal was manufactured by perfectly respectable Austrian arms makers Steyr Mannlicher and Glock GmbH (which, ironically, also seems to supply the PSNI)  and presumably the manufacturers made a tidy profit from the original sale of the guns and ammo.

Yet, the Irish-bound weaponry, which started life perfectly legally, was reportedly destined for drug gangs, and could also have ended up in the hands of Northern Ireland paramilitary groups. The fact that 'legal arms' at some point and somehow became 'illegal arms' is worthy of some further consideration. How, when and where did this happen? When the consequences are so deadly, why are the controls on arms ownership so loose?

PSNI chief Sir Hugh Orde reckoned the deadly arsenal was "enough to start a war". Of course, in these days of relative peace, Northern Ireland is perhaps more accustomed to sending weapons out of the country to start wars … or at least to fuel a war once it has started. The recent Raytheon 9 court case seems to illustrate this point pretty well.

Anti-war protestors, who had occupied the Raytheon plant in L/Derry in 2006, argued (somewhat successfully in court as it turned out!) that they had undertaken their action in order to prevent war crimes being perpetrated in Lebanon by Israel using Raytheon-supplied weapons (which may use Northern Ireland-supplied software).

Amnesty's 2007 report 'Northern Ireland: Arming the World' illustrates the point rather more comprehensively, documenting the wide variety of Northern Ireland companies involved in the (perfectly legal) export of weaponry, software and arms components to countries throughout the world.

So, what I witnessed last Tuesday at the Europa Hotel was a small part of a successful mission (well done by the way, PSNI!) to stem the flow of illegal weaponry. Amnesty is still pushing hard to secure tighter controls on the flow of legal weaponry. While this year has seen improvements in the UK's arms control regime, the Government has so far signally failed to put in place the very measures which would stop Northern Ireland-supplied weaponry ending up in the hands of human rights abusers in countries like Burma and Zimbabwe.

The Irish criminals and paramilitaries deprived (temporarily, I fear) of additional guns and bullets are nickel and dime operators compared to most of the regimes buying up arms as if their reigns depended on it…

We need the authorities to tackle these gangsters with as much vigour as they tackled Ireland's illegal gun-runners on Tuesday last.

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