The boy in blue - a retired garda looks back on his decades on the front line

From tracking 'The General' to dealing with the murderous Kinahan-Hutch feud, Pat Leahy has seen it all, writes Security Correspondent, Cormac O’Keeffe
The boy in blue - a retired garda looks back on his decades on the front line
Garda Chief Superintendent Pat Leahy. Picture: Crispin Rodwell

There’s no doubt in Pat Leahy’s mind as to what was the toughest time in his 38 years in An Garda Síochána.

It was those few weeks in 2016, when the Kinahan crime cartel went on an unprecedented murder spree in Dublin’s north east inner city.

After the special forces-style attack on the Regency Hotel in February 5, 2016 – in which cartel leader Daniel Kinahan escaped murder but his lieutenant David Byrne was killed - the Kinahan organised crime group launched an “extermination” campaign against the Hutch crime gang.

In less than four months, four people in Dublin’s north east inner city were shot dead by either organised hit teams or chaotic ‘gunmen for hire’. The death toll reached eight across Dublin by the end of August.

WORST OF TIMES 

Mr Leahy said the cartel’s killing spree took the lives not just of associates of the Hutch crime gang, but family members uninvolved in the gang and completely innocent bystanders.

It started with the murder of Eddie Hutch on February 8, in which a hit team travelled right into the north inner city, at a time when there was a massive garda presence on the streets, and shot the brother of Gerry 'The Monk' Hutch dead on his doorstep.

On April 14, a completely innocent homeless man, Martin O’Rourke, was shot dead on Sheriff Street in an attack aimed at a Hutch target.

On April 25, dissident republican Michael Barr was shot dead by gunmen in the Sunset House pub in Summerhill and on May 24 Gareth Hutch, a nephew of the Monk, was murdered in the car park of Avondale House flats.

“Those few weeks were undoubtedly the most challenging of my career,” said Mr Leahy, who was chief superintendent of Dublin North Central at the time.

“Our investigation teams were working flat out, our senior investigating officers (SIO’s) were working around the clock managing and coordinating hundreds of lines of enquiry each.” He said other officers were busy realigning resources in order to prevent more violence and protect communities.

“I remember meeting with my senior officers and telling them that we needed to put a stop to this at all costs and protect our community, that we had skin in the game and the community had put their trust in us,” said Mr Leahy, who retired last week at the rank of assistant commissioner.

“This was not an easy task, however, as many of the main targets refused to cooperate with safety and security advice provided to them by Gardai. We used all the resources available to us which included 24-hour roving and static armed checkpoints, proactive patrolling, high-intensity community policing and around the clock stop-and-search at key locations.

“In under four months, we had four murders in a small patch of the northeast inner city, all of them we believed carried out by the Kinahan cartel.” 

KIDS 'PLAYING FEUD'

He said the residents of the northeast inner city were hit hard: “The impact it had on the local community was quite significant. They were at times afraid to leave their homes and walk the streets, despite saturation police patrols in the area, armed checkpoints and high visibility patrols.” 

He said there was a deep impact on schoolkids: “This even had an impact on the schools in the area where children were walking through high-visibility armed checkpoints on their way to school and afterwards on their way to the shops.

“It was reported to us that children were playing games based on the feud and that it was an ongoing topic of conversation in the school yard.” 

Locals, school teachers, principals and Gardai were concerned that the sight of armed gardaí in the area would be normalised and, he said, to address this they did their best to schedule checkpoints away from schools where this was possible.

They also worked with the school principals, local elected representatives and other key stakeholders in the area to reduce the impact.

“The area was so small, however, that it became impossible to shield the local children from what was happening and this was of great concern to all of us living and working in the area.” 

He said a particularly insidious aspect of the Kinahan killing campaign was the recruitment of locals to do their dirty work.

One of the reasons was that suspects for the murders were locals from the area, in some cases they would have grown up with the targets. That feeling of the community turning on itself and not knowing who to trust was very destructive.

He said gardaí did their best, on a range of fronts.

“First to investigate the murders and do that methodically and professionally, secondly to try and reassure the locals that we were there to protect them,” he said.

Pat Leahy said the community policing approach gardai had taken over the years had “forged a relationship” with local elected representatives, groups and residents.

“As a consequence, they all stood firm behind us throughout this onslaught. This community and stakeholder support was key, as it created a solidarity between the actors in this small area, giving each the strength and resilience to persevere over the long haul.” He said that without that collective support, they wouldn’t have been as successful as they were.

“This is testament to the value of community-oriented policing. We had worked at building trust and relationships over the previous number of years and this paid off when we needed it most.” 

Detectives in Dublin north central brought charges in three of the four murders in those months – the murder of Michael Barr, Gareth Hutch and Martin O’Rourke – and successful convictions in two of them – Barr and Hutch.

The case in respect of the murder of Martin O’Rourke collapsed after the suspect died, thought to have been suicide, thereby depriving the family of justice.

As important as the successful convictions were, Mr Leahy said the pain for the families continues: “Despite the fact that people were charged with these heinous crimes, however, and the subsequent convictions, the families of the victims will continue to live with the pain of loss”.

He said the impact of the Kinahan extermination campaign resulted in a significant rise in the numbers of people in the area under threat, which his team prioritised by the level of each individual threat based on information, intelligence and local knowledge.

He said keeping people safe, however, required significant resourcing and around the clock proactive policing.

Operation Hybrid, the dedicated initiative to combat the feud, has entailed a mammoth policing effort.

Up-to-date figures show that from February 8, 2016 to March 1, 2020 there have been:

  • 86,154 checkpoints;
  • 20,977 patrols
  •  

  • 23,568 searches

CORK TO NAMIBIA 

Mr Leahy, a native of Cork, joined An Garda Síochána in 1982, at the age of just 20. He was the first member of his family to become a guard.

A few years later he joined the Tango Unit, a surveillance section known as ‘T Squad’ set up to target Martin ‘The General’ Cahill.

During his long career, he served with the United Nations in Namibia, Cambodia, and Bosnia, and investigated the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon (Rafiq Hariri) in 2005.

He also conducted assessments of policing in Uganda and Malawi on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs (Irish Aid Programme).

He gathered a degree in public management (Administration of Justice Stream), an International Executive MBA, and a PhD.

DEALERS DIE YOUNG 

In April 2017, he was promoted to Assistant Commissioner for the Dublin Metropolitan Region, giving him a bird’s eye view of organised crime across Dublin.

Apart from the Kinahan-Hutch feud, one of the feuds that particularly concerned him was in north Dublin, much of it centred around the Coolock area.

Between January and November 2019, five men were murdered in a tangled feud involving low-level dealers, drug debts and hitmen.

Four of the victims were aged in their early 20s and many of them friends. One of them, Jordan Davis was shot in the heart of Darndale as he walked with his newborn.

Keane Mulready-Woods. Picture: Gardaí
Keane Mulready-Woods. Picture: Gardaí

“What really struck me was the ages of the victims, all in their early 20s,” said Mr Leahy. "It showed just how young men were dying in this trade – and often dying at low tiers of the ladder, at street level or just above that.” This is a trend Mr Leahy had seen over the years, with young men in disadvantaged areas most affected, along with their families and the wider community.

“The lure of perceived easy money and the associated power of working for one gang or another was taking its toll on small local communities. Unfortunately, drug dealing appears to be seen as a legitimate employment option for some kids in such disadvantaged areas and this continues to have a devastating effect on young people and their families.” He added: “In these areas disadvantage means exactly that, kids are entering the race so far behind the starting line of life that in some cases they feel that they have no option but to break the rules in order to own a nice pair of runners or drive a nice car, things that the rest of society takes for granted.” 

But he said it comes at a terrible cost: “Because they are kids when they first get into this way of life having been groomed by older more insidious players, they end up either perpetrating the violence or being victims of it. Unfortunately, it often transpires that they end up in a spiral that visits both outcomes to them at different times, leaving families grieving.” 

He said the TV series The Guards: Inside the K – set in the Blanchardstown/Finglas area of west Dublin – highlighted for ordinary people the reality gardaí face on the streets, the behaviour of local gangs, the fear communities live in and the real danger posed by local gang leaders.

“There is no short-term response and hard edge policing is certainly not the long-term answer. A properly resourced, stratified, graduated, multi-agency approach, supported by community-oriented policing is what will have the best chance of making a difference in the long run; however, the challenge is significant, and until such an approach is up and running, communities will rely on the Gardai to use all available resources to keep them and their children safe”.

SPREAD OF FEUDS 

He said events in provincial towns, such as Drogheda and Longford, show that the violence associated with drugs and gang feuds can hit places outside Dublin or Limerick.

“This should provide the impetus for our policing orientation to change to a more imbedded, proactive community approach where the development of police-community relationships will result in continuous pressure testing and dialogue which can act as an early warning system, as a consequence of which, multi-stakeholder interventions can be actioned with a view to arresting problems before they become deep-rooted in communities.” But he said that appropriate resourcing was “of course essential” to achieving such an approach.

Asked whether this level of violence could break out in Cork, he said: “Wherever drugs become a feature of community life, fear and intimidation follow. Violence is a feature of the drugs trade and as we have seen, extreme violence is part and parcel of this insidious business as communities are carved up between rival gangs who pursue the lure of money and power.

“What we also know of course is that no good comes from this for our young people as they very often live short lives as they get caught up in this spiral of fear, suspicion and violence.” So, he said everything must be done “to prevent it taking hold in the first place” and this required a certain style of policing that is centred on the community.

COMMUNITY POLICING 

Throughout his long career, Mr Leahy has shown a keen interest in community policing, recently completing a PhD in this area.

He reflected on the concepts of Offender Case Management, now known as JARC (Joint Agency Response to Crime) and the Small Areas Community Policing approach, both of which were recognised by the European Institute for Public Administration as representing European Best Practice.

“Both initiatives are testament to the value of a multi-stakeholder approach to problem-solving in the community. Operating in silos as individual agencies or departments will not achieve what is required to protect local communities, particularly where the scourge of drugs has taken hold. A coordinated, community-oriented strategy involving the Joint Policing Committees, local elected representatives, local authorities, residents, businesses and Gardai operating in partnership is what is required to tackle these adaptive challenges. Short term technical fixes only exacerbate issues for communities”.

“A community orientation in policing is what builds trust between the police and the individuals and families that live in local communities. This trust is central to the development of effective lasting relationships and is essential in jointly tackling community problems and assuring communities that the police are in tune with their needs and requirements at all times.” 

COVID LESSONS 

He said this was evident throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, where Gardai were seen to engage with communities all across the country, providing services and reassurance to our most vulnerable citizens, while employing a strong community-oriented approach in delivering on the restrictions necessary to keep people safe in Ireland.

He said: “While this approach to policing is not unique to the Covid-19 context in Ireland, it was more evident and visible across the country while we were focused on this national issue and other demands on policing were not as acute as normal. In this context, the Gardai were in a position to deliver the policing style that comes naturally to them, similar to our Defence Forces on United Nations mission.” 

A checkpoint last June. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos
A checkpoint last June. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos

“Our pandemic experience clearly indicates that the Irish people want to have a relationship with its police service. It wants to be proud of its police service and is willing to engage and support its individual Gardai and its national police service in a collaborative, community-oriented approach to policing. It behoves us to pursue such an orientation.” But he said the challenge was “significant” and required a move away from the ubiquitous traditional model of policing in most western liberal democracies.

“Real community-oriented policing as a national policing philosophy is almost impossible to find anywhere. In an Irish context, the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland stated that 'neither the structure of the police organisation nor its practices support the image it has of itself as a community police service'."

He said the current national framework for community policing in Ireland had “real potential” to address these matters.

“Individual gardaí have shown that they have the commitment and the energy to deliver on this style of policing, so the potential is there to make the necessary transition.” 

But he warned: “International evidence indicates that the police have consistently underestimated the nature of the challenge in making this transition and have therefore failed to change the underlying philosophy, thereby resulting in the community-oriented approach being employed as an add-on tactic as opposed to a guiding principle/philosophy.

“I sincerely wish my colleagues well with this endeavour and hope that they are successful in pursuing this orientation in policing.” 

On Covid, he believes the policing response set the right tone, but has concerns about relaxing restrictions too quickly.

“The policing approach throughout the pandemic was wholly appropriate, focussing on reassurance, engagement, education, encouragement and only as a last resort, enforcement to keep people safe. The people of Ireland responded accordingly, acknowledging the commitment and community-oriented approach of individual gardaí and the organisation as a whole. Unfortunately, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has taken approximately 1,750 of our citizens, leaving families and loved ones grieving over the deaths of parents, children, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and close friends, and it will stay in the minds of many for some considerable time as they grapple with the circumstances in which they said their last farewells.

“What has happened to our nation needs to be marked and remembered at some time in the not-too-distant future when we have definitively put this behind us. We must avoid complacency however as this pandemic is not yet over, and therefore we must continue to follow the advice of our health professionals.” 

DRUGS 

Mr Leahy was one of the most senior officers to offer support for the radical decision of the last government to set up the country’s first supervised injecting centre, where heroin users could legally, and with more safety, inject drugs.

He said the centre – currently awarded to Merchants Quay Ireland but now subject to a judicial review - offered a humane approach to dealing with the very visible problem of drug-taking in cities.

“There but for the grace of God go my own children,” he said, adding: “How can we continue to sit back and watch, while the most helpless of our citizens, that is, those with chronic addiction, inject behind rubbish bins, surrounded by faeces and other dirt, day in and day out.

“Safe injecting centres provide medical care and supervision and have been shown to prevent death and serious injury due to overdose. They address drug addiction as it should be dealt with, as a health issue and not a criminal justice issue.

“They bring a semblance of humanity to those afflicted by drug addiction and discharge our collective duty of care to the most marginalised in society.” But he said there are issues: “It appears to be the questions of where and how it should be done that exercises communities in negatively responding to such proposals and this is understandable, as they have seen what drug addiction and its associated issues can do to a community.

“We must therefore be innovative and creative in how we approach this, but approach it we must - the alternative, that is the status quo, is unacceptable in a modern society.” He does have some concerns about legal and practical issues around the running of the centre and, separately, does not see legalisation as the way to go.

“Legalisation is a different concept to supervised injecting, however, and I have yet to identify a clear rationale or undisputed evidence of how this has been successful anywhere. The fact is that both sides of the argument have been vociferously articulated, with each side producing evidence in defence of its own position. Ultimately, however, if legalisation had achieved the outcomes required, I believe that governments would be pursuing it with great vigour.

“That leaves us with a greying of the waters around supervised injecting centres, that ultimately requires legislation that facilitates supervised usage and possession within a certain geographic area, while maintaining a stance of illegality across the state.” 

This puts a heavy onus, and responsibility, on the gardaí: “This places the success or failure of the approach squarely on the shoulders of the local police who are required to use significant discretion when applying the law. This has created continuing concern for communities, the police service and other stakeholders, such as schools, local residents and businesses who have been asked to live with the new order."

THE FUTURE 

Mr Leahy said he will continue working in the security and policing sphere and is optimistic about the future of An Garda Síochána.

“The Garda organisation is currently in a good place, having stood shoulder-to-shoulder with communities across the length and breadth of our country during this national emergency and doing so in a manner that showed an authentic commitment to delivering better outcomes for families, communities and the most vulnerable in our society,” he said.

“I believe that this approach can be maintained in the short term and enhanced in the medium term while also tackling crime using all the tools that a modern police service should possess in support of our communities and our country.”

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up