Army Ranger Wing rappelled onto cargo ship after Naval Service warning shots

Military personnel after boarding the MV Matthew cargo vessel (Niall Carson/PA)
Military personnel after boarding the MV Matthew cargo vessel (Niall Carson/PA)

Members of an elite army unit rappelled from a helicopter onto a cargo ship suspected of carrying significant amounts of controlled drugs, according to a statement from the Defence Forces about a multi-agency operation on the south-east coast of Ireland.

The insertion of the highly-trained Army Range Wing followed the firing of warning shots from an Irish navy vessel towards the cargo ship.

The co-ordinated operation, involving the Irish navy, Army Ranger Wing, Revenue and the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, resulted in the “detention of a Panamanian-registered bulk cargo vessel originating in South America”.

The MV Matthew vessel was intercepted by the Army Ranger Wing and detained in the early hours of Tuesday.

The agencies said a “significant quantity” of suspected drugs were found onboard the cargo ship.

Drugs seizure on cargo ship
Military personnel onboard the MV Matthew whilst it is escorted into Cobh (Niall Carson/PA)

The naval service’s offshore patrol vessel, the LE William Butler Yeats, was involved in the operation alongside two AW139 helicopters, one CASA fixed-wing aircraft and one PC12 fixed-wing aircraft.

In a statement, the Defence Forces said: “The container ship was tracked by both Air Corps and the Naval Service assets over a number of days, and was detained following the firing of warning shots in its direction by the LE William Butler Yeats.

“A specialist team from the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) then deployed by helicopter onto the MV MATTHEW via fast rope insertion in challenging conditions.

“The ARW made the vessel safe and enabled its boarding by officials and personnel from the Naval Service, the Garda National Drugs Unit, Organised Crime Bureau (GNDOCB) and Revenue’s Customs Service.

“The vessel was escorted by the Naval Service to an Irish port where it will be detained to allow for a detailed search and investigation by the relevant State agencies.”

Crowds of people lined the walls of Cobh harbour as the cargo ship was transported to a naval base on Haulbowline in Co Cork.

Armed members of the Ranger Wing were seen on board alongside the ship’s crew members and other Defence Forces personnel.

Three men, aged 60, 50 and 31, have been arrested on suspicion of organised crime offences and are detained at garda stations in Wexford.

In a joint statement, Revenue and An Garda Siochana said: “The cargo vessel will now be the subject of a detailed examination by Revenue Customs and An Garda Siochana.”

The operation was conducted in collaboration with the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre – Narcotics (MAOC N) based in Lisbon, Portugal, and partners from the National Crime Agency (NCA), the Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) and French customs service DNRED.

The Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces commended the efforts of all personnel involved in the operation.

Lieutenant General Sean Clancy said: “I would like to personally commend the courage, discipline and professionalism of all personnel involved in this successful operation.”

Drugs seizure on cargo ship
A cargo vessel named MV Matthew is escorted into Cobh in Cork by the Irish Navy (Niall Carson/PA)

He said the multi-agency operation demonstrates the interoperability of the Defence Forces, underlining the “unique capability that we bring to the defence of the State”.

He added: “The significant intelligence-led planning by the joint task force enabled the co-ordination and execution of this complex multiagency operation.

“This operation demonstrated the importance of all services of the Defence Forces and their ability to operate in the most challenging of conditions.”

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee congratulated the State and international bodies involved in the operation.

She said the drugs on board would have “no doubt been destined for Irish and European markets”.

In a statement she said: “It will represent a blow to the organised-crime gangs involved in drug distribution internationally.”

She said it shows the success of An Garda Siochana in building coalitions to tackle transnational crime.

“Illegal drug distribution and misuse does untold damage to our communities. Criminals may seek to overcome the barrier of borders, but as shown today borders are not barriers to effective criminal co-operation.

“Tackling organised crime is a key priority for Government and is central to building safer, stronger communities. We will always provide An Garda Siochana with the support and resources they need.”

The major multi-agency operation followed an alert after a separate boat ran aground off the coast of Wexford.

The Irish Coast Guard said it received a distress call from a vessel in difficulty off the coast of Co Wexford at about 10.10pm on Sunday.

Waterford-based coast guard helicopter R117, and Rosslare RNLI were sent to the scene where a fishing vessel was aground on a sandbank off the coast of Blackwater, Co Wexford.

After attempts to tow the vessel were unsuccessful, the people aboard were successfully winched from the vessel.

Both R117 and the Rosslare RNLI were subsequently stood down.