Three more men have been arrested in connection with the seizure of cocaine, worth €157 million, from a bulk carrier ship off the coast of Cork.

It brings the total number of men detained in connection with the seizure to six.

The drugs, which weighed 2.2 tonnes, were recovered from the MV Matthew ship which was seized in a military operation, making it the largest seizure by weight in the history of the State.

The 25 crew members of the MV Matthew ship are being interviewed by gardaí.

The ship is being searched and forensically examined in the port of Cork.

Assistant Commissioner Justin Kelly said the drugs came from the South American cocaine cartels.

He said a number of organised crime groups in Ireland and in the UK and Europe, with direct links to South America, came together to source and divide up the drugs.

"There's no large shipment like this coming into our ports or transiting our country without an Irish criminal group involved," the Assistant Commissioner said.

Director General Operations Revenue and Customs Gerry Harrahill, Assistant Garda Commissioner Justin Kelly and Fleet Operations Commander of the Irish Naval Service Tony Geraghty
Revenue and Customs' Gerry Harrahill, Assistant Commissioner Justin Kelly, and the Navy's Tony Geraghty

The Fleet Commander for the Irish Naval Service described the seizure of the boat as an extremely complex military operation.

Commander Tony Geraghty said the impounding of the vessel was made more difficult by the poor weather and trying to predict the actions of the criminal gangs.

The Naval Service fired warning shots during the operation, he said, because the merchant ship refused to follow instructions and an escalated use of force was used.

The ship is 190m long with an exceptionally high free board, he said, so it would have been very hard to get on board.

However, the commander said that had the weather been better they would have been able to launch a boarding party.

Instead, conditions dictated the necessity to call in the Army Ranger Wing, who fast roped onto the ship.

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The Director General of Revenue and Customs’ Operations said provisions in the Customs Act 2015 were used for the first time to appoint Defence Forces personnel as customs officers to go on board and secure the vessel.

Gerry Harrahill said appointed customs officers can board a vessel at sea but because of the weather conditions and the movements of the ship, customs were not equipped to board.

The ship did not comply and he said it became obvious that force was required.

"Our legislation provided for it," he said, "It was the first time we had to use it."

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The Army Rangers were appointed customs officers in less than an hour and seized the ship.

Assistant Commissioner Kelly also described the operation as " a significant disruption for criminal groups" who would have lost " significant money".

"This is a huge hit for the people involved in this," he said.

"It sends a message that Ireland isn't an easy place to import drugs in to and that we will be relentless and determined to disrupt and dismantle criminal gangs."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar praised the "phenomenal work" of the agencies involved in the operation.

"I want to commend the phenomenal work done by the gardaí, done by the Defence Forces and also the Revenue Customs service interdicting a vessel off Wexford," he said.

Speaking in the Dáil, Mr Varadkar that the seizure "may be the biggest interdiction of illegal drugs in Irish history".

MV Matthew was detained after it was taken by force by armed Defence Forces personnel and gardaí

Tánaiste Micheál Martin commended the bravery shown by those involved in what was a treacherous and dangerous operation in rough seas.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee said the record drug seizure was an example of what can be achieved through cross-agency co-operation.

She said: "We've seen where collaboration occurs both at home and abroad that we can tackle organised crime groups and this has resulted in the largest ever seizure in the history of the State."

She said the seizure of drugs destined for the Irish and European markets represents a blow to the organised crime groups involved in drugs distribution internationally.

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Separately, Michael O'Sullivan, former assistant garda commissioner, and former head of the EU's anti-drugs smuggling agency, the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre, described the Irish Naval Service as the "unsung heroes of Europe".

"Europe is very much dependent on the Irish Naval Service monitoring, tracking vessels and even intercepting vessels, so the more assets they have available, the better it is all round for everybody."

He said drug traffickers figure which route has the "least resistance", so if "there is not enough naval vessels off the coast of Spain or off the coast of Ireland, they will try manoeuvring through those routes".

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Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces Lieutenant General Seán Clancy commended the "courage, discipline and professionalism" of all personnel involved in the operation.

He added: "The significant intelligence-led planning by the Joint Task Force enabled the coordination 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."

Speaking on RTÉ's Six One News, Colonel Stephen Ryan, Director of Operations and Planning with the Defence Forces, said the whole operation was completed quickly.

"From the time the Rangers were over, it was all done in very quick time," he said.

The Army Rangers used a helicopter to access the vessel

"They gained access to the ship through fast roping from our colleagues in the Aer Corps. They took over the bridge, they took over the engine room and they secured the crew.

"Then the ship was placed under control of the Defence Forces and was steered towards Cork.

"And then once the sea conditions allowed members of An Garda Síochána and the Revenue Commissioners were then brought on board the ship, and they took control of the situation from there."

Speaking on the same programme, Aer Corps helicopter pilot Captain Neil Dunne said the decision on the "insertion" was made despite difficult weather conditions.

He said: "When we were tasked on Monday morning, we basically stood up all our operational units and squadrons. This meant that everything from our technicians, air traffic controllers and our skilled pilots were all ready to go for the job.

"So, the crew had to deal with a severe sea swell, which meant that the platform or the vessel that they were going onto was moving in all directions.

"It also meant that the vessel itself had cranes, it had wires that were on the deck that the crew had to contend with as well, and we also had very high winds as well, which made it tricky conditions."

He said the crew trained for these situations, but in this case there was an added danger as the vessel was not compliant.

"When the guys were going in, the ship actually started to move and not adhere to their commands," he said.

"Spirits are high, a great sense of pride. And I suppose it really did show great courage for everyone that was involved in the operation."