Prison sentences have been handed down to two men who attempted to smuggle more than eight million cigarettes into the UK from the Republic of Ireland.

James Francis McDonnell, 42, from Ferryhill Road, Newry, and Michael Fearon, 21, from The Village, Jonesborough, were arrested by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in June 2010. The pair were caught trying to escape from an industrial unit in the Killeavy area as they offloaded cigarettes from a 40ft container into a transit van for distribution across Northern Ireland.

John Whiting, assistant director, criminal investigation, HMRC, said: “These men were involved in a plot to flood Northern Ireland with millions of illegal cigarettes, which would have deprived the nation’s public services of nearly £2m in revenue. We will not stop in our pursuit to bring those involved in this type of criminal activity before the courts.

“Tobacco smuggling is organised crime on a global scale. It encourages and supports criminality within our communities, robbing taxpayers of millions each year in unpaid duty and VAT.”

McDonnell was sentenced to two years nine months in jail and two years, nine months on licence. He appeared at Laganside Crown Court today. Fearon, who absconded after his arrest in June 2010, was sentenced to one year in jail and one year on licence in his absence.