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Ireland's biggest drugs bust highlights scale of our problem

THE €1.2bn cocaine haul found in the sea off west Cork puts Ireland ahead of Germany -- with its 82-million population -- in the European drug stakes.

If Ireland's annual cocaine total for 2007 is compared with 2006 -- the latest available figures -- Ireland had the sixth highest figure for seizures out of 31 European countries.

The seizure of 1.5 tonnes of cocaine was one of the 10 largest single hauls of cocaine in the world last year.

Three Englishmen have been convicted of Ireland's biggest ever coke smuggling operation.

Joe Daly (41), Martin Wanden (45) and Perry Wharrie (48) were unanimously convicted of attempting to bring 1.5 tonnes of high-purity cocaine ashore in west Cork last summer.

Value

The value of the cocaine seizure -- initially estimated by Gardai at €100m -- could now exceed an astonishing €1.2bn.

The men -- one of whom almost died during the bungled drug operation -- were convicted by a Cork Circuit Criminal Court jury yesterday after two days of deliberation following a marathon 10-week trial.

A fourth man -- Gerard Hagan (24) -- had pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine for sale or supply on the opening day of the trial last May.

The four were part of a joint enterprise which is believed to have involved up to 12 individuals -- only four of whom were ever charged in Ireland.

Gardai have said that others are being pursued and will be brought to justice.

The international drug smuggling operation came to nought off the west Cork coast when an RIB, a rigid inflatable boat, carrying the drugs ended up in Dunlough Bay.

The men were charged after they were caught following the bungled smuggling operation, which saw some 62 bales of cocaine end up in the sea on July 2, 2007.

The RIB that the gang used after rendezvousing with another boat 30 miles off the coast stalled because someone mistakenly fed its two powerful 200hp engines with diesel instead of petrol.

The gang had collected the drugs from a catamaran, the Lucky Day, which had crossed the Atlantic from Barbados.

They had intended to bring the drugs ashore at Dunmanus Bay but, after the engines cut out, ended up in Dunlough Bay.

There, in Force 5 winds and three-metre swells, the RIB capsized, throwing Hagan and Wanden into the sea along with the drugs.

Hagan made it ashore to raise the alarm, and Wanden was lucky to be plucked alive from the sea by Castletownbere Lifeboat.

Two others, Wharrie and Daly, were spotted on the cliffs at Dunlough Bay but fled on foot when coastguard personnel arrived.

They were arrested two days later, exhausted and dishevelled near Schull following a major Garda search operation.

More than 200 of the 577 witnesses initially flagged by the prosecution were eventually called, including witnesses from the UK, Spain, Barbados and South Africa.

The cocaine is believed to have originated in Columbia -- with a drugs cartel understood to be out of pocket to the tune of €40m-plus because of the Cork seizure.

The drugs were valued at a staggering €440m because the purity level of the 1.5 tonnes of cocaine was estimated at 75pc, five times that of street cocaine purity.

Each of the three men had denied three charges of possessing cocaine for sale or supply at Dunlough Bay outside Goleen, Co Cork, on July 2, 2007.

Addresses

The men all have addresses in the UK: Perry Wharrie of 60 Pyrles Lane, Essex, England; Joe Daly of 9 Carrisbrooke Avenue, Bexley, Kent; and Martin Wanden of no fixed address.

Two of the defendants claimed that they were entirely the victims of circumstances, coincidence and bad luck.

Joe Daly -- a father of two -- said he had only gone to west Cork as a favour for his brother who wanted an RIB delivered. Mr Daly agreed to drive a Land Rover jeep, with the RIB attached, across from Pembroke to Rosslare and then to West Cork.

His brother, Michael, is a former Detective Sergeant in the Metropolitan Police drugs squad.

Joe Daly said he had only gone to Dunlough Bay on July 2 because he had been told his brother Michael was in danger out fishing in stormy seas.

He said he had gone on the run for two days with a man he didn't know -- Perry Wharrie -- because he had panicked at the serious situation he found himself in at Dunlough Bay.

Martin Wanden claimed that he had taken a RIB out to sea on July 2 because a friend, Charles Goldie, claimed to have gotten into difficulties while out fishing. He insisted he had been shoved onto a second RIB containing the drugs after insisting he wanted no part of what was going on.

Perry Wharrie -- who did not give evidence during the trial -- claimed through his defence counsel that Gardai arrested "the wrong man".