Lurgan lorry driver ‘a minor player’ High Court told

The dispute centres on fees recieved by lawyers
The dispute centres on fees recieved by lawyers

A man charged over the seizure of £1m of cannabis in Belfast only became involved in the trade to pay off a £10,000 drug debt, the High Court has heard.

A defence lawyer claimed Robert Byrne became addicted to cocaine after losing his business and owed the money to “sinister elements”.

The 37-year-old, from Moneymore in Drogheda, Co Louth, was arrested with lorry driver Gerard Bates (24) during a police operation on January 26.

Officers recovered 50 kilos of herbal cannabis after stopping and searching two vehicles at Dargan Road in north Belfast.

Both men face charges of possessing class B drugs with intent to supply and being concerned in its supply.

Bates, from Watsonville in Lurgan, faces an additional count of unlawfully supplying cannabis to another person.

As Byrne mounted an unsuccessful application for bail, prosecutors disclosed details of a plot to import the drugs consignment from England to Ireland.

Bates claimed during police interviews that he had been contacted by unknown men and offered money to collect what he thought was tobacco in England.

He was to transport the goods across the Irish Sea before passing them over to Byrne, it was alleged.

The court heard he drove to an industrial estate near Dartford, where two men with southern Irish accents met him and loaded boxes onto his lorry.

According to Bates’ account, he picked up a legitimate load of chilled meat in Scunthorpe and then crossed by ferry back to Belfast.

It was claimed that he was to meet Byrne at Dargan Road, but Byrne got lost at one stage and had to phone him to ask for directions.

Prosecution counsel Conor Maguire said police believed the two men had different levels of involvement in the operation.

“They are of the view that Bates was a minor player,” the barrister said. “This applicant (Byrne) is a more significant member of a criminal gang involved in drugs.”

He also revealed that Garda searches of Byrne’s home recovered three kilos of herbal cannabis worth £60,000 and 60 grams of cocaine valued at around £3,000.

Although Bates was previously granted bail, the prosecution argued his co-accused should remain in custody.

But defence counsel insisted Byrne’s alleged involvement was linked to a severe addiction to cocaine he developed after his dry lining business went bust.

Within a year the accused amassed debts of £10,000, hiding the habit from his family, the court heard.

“It transpires that debt was willingly run up by sinister elements,” his barrister said.

“These people knew where he lived, knew he had a partner and children, and it appeared to him at the time his only way out of repaying this debt was to do as these people told him.”

Refusing bail yesterday, however, the judge said: “I’m satisfied there’s a reasonable suspicion he will not turn up for his trial and may reoffend.”