Cocaine ‘mother ship’ with £136m drugs haul bound for UK seized in Irish military raid

Military personnel on the vessel
Military personnel on the vessel - Niall Carson/PA

Irish commandos “fast-roped” from helicopters in stormy conditions to board a fleeing cartel “mother ship” bound for the UK before making the biggest drugs bust in Ireland’s history.

The 620-foot long MV Matthew was headed towards Belfast and passed within 30 miles of the Welsh coast before the haul of cocaine, worth an estimated £136 million, was found in the daring raid.

The Matthew attempted to flee when it was confronted by the Irish Navy’s LÉ William Butler Yeats, which fired two warning shots at the retreating vessel off the coast of Cork.

Elite special forces from Ireland’s Army Ranger Wing, armed with sniper and assault rifles, fired more warning shots as they boarded the deck after sliding down ropes from hovering helicopters.

Military personnel onboard the MV Matthew
Military personnel onboard the MV Matthew

It is believed to be the first time the Irish Army has used the “fast-roping” technique in a real-world setting.

Police said a “murderous” South American cartel supplied the 2.2 tonnes of cocaine found on board the Panamanian-registered ship, which was tracked following suspicions that it was delivering drugs to smaller boats at sea.

Two men, from the UK and eastern Europe, were arrested under anti-gangland legislation after being rescued in the early hours of Monday morning from a run-aground trawler. It is suspected that the vessel was being used to pick up drugs from the mother ship.

‘This was a very sophisticated operation at the upper levels of drug trafficking. Some of the drugs would have ended up in Ireland, but other consignments would have been brought to other European countries,” a source told the Irish Sun.

A total of three people are in custody. But there may be further arrests as the ship’s crew are still being questioned. It comes following the joint operation between the police, army, customs officials and navy.

The MV Matthew is escorted by the Irish Navy following the raid
The MV Matthew is escorted by the Irish Navy following the raid - Niall Carson/PA

‘Phenomenal work’

Garda assistant commissioner Justin Kelly said on Wednesday it was the “largest drug seizure in the history of the state”.

He said the operation had been undertaken in “difficult conditions,” and would cause “significant disruption” to criminal organisations.

The assistant commissioner added that such a large shipment could not have come through the route it did “without an Irish organised criminal group” being involved.

A number of different gangs had the capability to be involved in the operation, he said.

The vessel left the Caribbean on Aug 18 and sailed to Guyana on the coast of South America before travelling to Ireland.

But the ship, which had its name changed several times, began suffering from engine trouble near the Wicklow coast as it headed to Belfast.

The captain began to drift down the Irish Sea, before he was able to restore power over the weekend. The vessel was headed for the Port of Cork to get parts to repair the engines when those on board realised they were being pursued.

Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, praised the “phenomenal work” of those involved in the operation.

Sinn Fein and opposition leader Mary Lou McDonald also said it highlighted the need to resolve a staffing crisis in the Irish Naval Service, which has meant only two of its vessels can be put to sea at once.