Last February, the Garda’s top gangland chief was put under sustained questioning by the media as to why – some five years on – no one had been convicted from the infamous murderous attack on the Regency Hotel in Dublin.
This seeming failure sparked commentary, and some sharp criticism, of the gardaí, and came two years after the only prosecution to date – that of Patrick Hutch – suddenly collapsed in the Special Criminal Court in the wake of the tragic death through suicide of the lead garda investigator.
There were concerns that no one might face justice for one of the most outrageous murders in Ireland’s gangland history, which catapulted the feud between the Kinahan crime cartel and the Hutch gang into unprecedented levels of violence.
But answering questions from the media at Garda HQ last February, Assistant Commissioner (AC) Serious and Organised Crime John O’Driscoll knew then that there would be prosecutions, and, while it would have deflected the glare of publicity on the lack of Regency charges, he could not reveal it.
“I’ve sat in front of the media and have given very careful answers,” he said. “If I'd have given different answer,s we may never have achieved the success we achieved.
"At my last one at Garda HQ, people were asking me about Regency ‘Are there going to be prosecutions?’ Of course, I knew where we stood, but I could hardly say, before anyone was charged - the damage we would do if we declared what we were doing.”
Since that briefing, four people have been charged before the Special Criminal Court (SCC) in relation to the murder of David Byrne at the Regency Hotel, Whitehall, north Dublin, on February 5, 2016. The trial is scheduled for next year.
And then there came the disclosure last April that a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) had been issued for Gerry Hutch, better known as 'The Monk', the head of the Hutch Organised Crime Group.
That followed the landmark decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to charge the veteran armed robber with murder in relation to the Regency attack.
Last month came the dramatic arrest of The Monk as he sat down in a restaurant in the Malaga area of Spain.
It followed a lengthy surveillance operation by Spanish police. The arrest was captured on police video, with the long clip showing the presence of a garda.
“After Regency, we knew this was going to take time and that has proven to be the case,” said AC O’Driscoll. “Here we are five years later we are now charging people.”
He said that where gardaí had suspicions, it has taken a number of years to gather information and to send the file to the DPP.
The police chief said: “The files are so extensive, it takes the DPP some considerable time, and then they go to Special Criminal Court.”
He added: “If Gerry Hutch came home today on an extradition warrant, I suspect he wouldn’t get a trial for two years, maybe less.
“We are still putting together cases, and convictions only started in earnest a few years later.”
The AC is not getting carried away with the arrest of The Monk: “Gerry Hutch is arrested, he’s subject of an extradition warrant - that is only because we have intent to lay a criminal charge. He may well prove to be an innocent person at the end of that process, it’s not to suggest he is guilty of what we may allege.”
But surely his arrest, to face charges directed by the DPP for the Regency murder, is a major milestone?
“I exercise considerable caution talking about a mere arrest," he said. "It is only a charge. We are accusing him, but he may be found innocent.”
And what about the wider impact – on the leaders of the Kinahan cartel, including Daniel Kinahan, holed up out in Dubai?
“I can’t talk about any specific investigation. Unfortunately, until such time as we are in a position to declare, to talk about where we are in relation to particular individuals, I cannot say anything.”
He added: “There may well be other people that we are pursuing before the courts, but we cannot go there – other than to say ‘yes if they are members of those organised crime groups you can take it, we are targeting them’. We are continuously gathering evidence to take out further people.”
Does he not think The Monk's arrest will give Daniel Kinahan and others cause to think they’re next?
“All these arrests have an impact. The allegation [against Hutch] relates to the Regency. It’s a whole different ball game to prove, as may be suggested, [someone is] at the helm of an organised crime group (OCG)."
This would appear to relate to what gardaí – in particular the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau (DOCB) – may be investigating in relation to Daniel Kinahan, including the possibility of securing charges of directing a criminal organisation.
Securing his extradition from the United Arab Emirates is also a whole different ballgame than using the EAW system, but gardaí know that a major Dutch drug boss, Ridouan Taghi – an associate of the Kinahan cartel – was extradited in December 2019 by Dubai police to Dutch authorities with the assistance of Interpol.
The commissioner would not be drawn any further on the matter.
But he spoke at length at the success DOCB has had against the Kinahan cartel and organised crime groups, driven by resources which were denied the organisation during the last recession.
“When you go through a recession and downsize your police force, without resources you can’t be proactive, you are just providing fire brigade policing, which is what we said in relation the Regency – we were at a juncture having come through a recession, we weren’t as knowledgeable as we should be as how criminals were behaving.
“Since the creation of DOCB [March 2015) and the task force to support it, we are constantly, every day of the week, targeting those who are the kingpins of organised crime.
“We’re not waiting for the next murder and [then trying to] solve it, we targeting those at the helm and people at all sort of levels in organised crime.”
A key component of the new strategy, post-Regency, was the ‘threat to life’ interventions- where the DOCB devoted extensive resources and time to gathering intelligence on gang associates, conducting surveillance and - when the time was right - swooping on them.
“We might identify locations where firearms might be used and we might be aware they are planning to murder – but even if you catch people with firearms, they get a certain sentence,” he said. “Unless you can prove the purpose for which they had the firearm was to kill, you weren’t going to get the best results and take the hit teams out.
“That’s why we had to put significant resources into monitoring these people to the extent we had sufficient proof firearms were for the purpose of killing.”
In the year the feud erupted in Ireland, in 2016, there were 20 interventions, growing to 26 in 2017. They halved to 13 in 2018 and stood at 14 in 2019 and collapsed since.
“They really dwindled in 2020, when we had two cases and there has been one so far this year, in Tallaght in recent weeks,” the AC said.
He said that in times of cutbacks this could be because of a lack of policing, but said this wasn’t the case over the last two years.
“We have taken a number of hit teams out,” he said.
Asked, based on court reports, if three to four hit teams have been taken out, he said: “It’s probably more than three to four and we also have hitmen.”
These hit teams have been successfully convicted before the SCC and include hitmen, such as Imre Arakas, brought in from Estonia.
The AC said: “Regarding hit teams, I argued at the very beginning of putting resources into this, before we caught the first hit team, I said there are only so many people who will murder in these circumstances. I believe that has proven to be the case.”
He said separate figures support this analysis.
“It’s reflected in another statistic, which are provisional figures, to the end of August show 36% less murders than this time last year,” he said, noting murders have dropped from 25 to 16. This includes a fall off in gangland murders.
“They just aren’t there to the extent we had, and our biggest problem now is the domestic-related murders,” he said. “There were no murders in May and no murder in July – a lot of countries would like to say that.”
While there are no official figures on ‘gangland murders’ media reports would suggest there were one, maybe two, this year, with three in 2020 (including that of Robbie Lawlor in the North as part of the Drogheda-Coolock feud).
In comparison, there were 10 gangland murders in 2019, seven in 2018, seven in 2017, 13 in 2016 and eight in 2015. The figures were generally higher in the preceding years - 2014 (13), 2012 (15) and 2010 (18).
The drop in threat to life operations and gangland murders is also reflected in seizures of firearms by DOCB, although this is confined just to this year.
There were 25 firearms seized in 2015, 18 in 2016, 29 in 2017, 23 in 2018, 18 in 2019 and 23 in 2020. Four firearms have been seized this year.
AC O’Driscoll said that some of the firearms are “military grade” with seven assault rifles and 17 machine guns seized by DOCB since 2015.
The DOCB have made use of special – some critics say draconian – powers contained in 2009 legislation, which created a new set of organised crime offences and referred them automatically to the non-jury Special Criminal Court, unless otherwise directed by the DPP.
These included offences of directing a criminal organisation, participating in such an organisation, benefiting or enhancing the activities of a criminal organisation.
Thehas previously reported the sharp rise in organised crime cases, as well as money laundering cases, before the SCC, growing from three cases in 2015, to 49 cases in 2019 and to 116 cases in 2020.
Figures compiled by AC O’Driscoll show that since January 1, 2019, DOCB has secured:
- 27 convictions in the SCC where the sentence has been more than five years, relating to organised crime offences and money laundering crimes;
- 46 convictions in the ordinary (jury) criminal courts with sentences over five years, mainly for drugs supply and some money laundering;
- 41 convictions in the ordinary courts where the sentences were less than five years
He pointed out these cases do not include the raft of convictions secured by local detectives for feud-related murders nor does it include DOCB convictions prior to January 2019. Neither do they include major convictions secured in Spain and Britain, where DOCB assisted.
With all the convictions of Kinahan lieutenants and foot soldiers, has the cartel not been partially dismantled?
“One step in dismantling is disruption and, definitely, there is significant disruption,” he said. “When you seize money and drugs it introduces huge uncertainty in an organised crime group. There has to be internal inquiries as to how are we being so successful? There’s uncertainty who they are dealing with and they cannot be sure where we are going to come from next.”
He added: “We’re clearly on the right road to achieving our aim which is to totally dismantle.”
But he stitched on a caveat: “You have a number of problems doing that.
"You also have the problem that those you have taken out go back into the fold and we are very conscious it's great getting five years plus, and it deals with a problem at a given time, but in January 2019, if someone got five years, they are due out.”
He said they also have to watch out for other existing feuds – in Drogheda, Coolock or Blanchardstown – flaring up again or new feuds erupting.
“It needs constant monitoring,” he said. “You saw in Limerick, the resources gardaí put into that, you had the ERU policing the streets. And the exercise the other week in Limerick, which was supported nationally, you are constantly watching Limerick to ensure it doesn’t return to where it was in the past. You saw in Drogheda there was a significant presence while that was on the boil, a lot of resources were put in, but you can’t afford to keep them there.”
AC O’Driscoll pulls out more stats – on drugs and cash – to hammer home the work of DOCB.
“The drugs trade hasn’t abated, the seizures are as frequent and large as ever,” he said, echoing numerous reports from EU and UN drug agencies.
To the end of August, DOCB (including operations with Customs) seized €48m worth of drugs. This compares to €36m worth in 2020 and €21m in 2019, with similar hauls since 2015, apart from 2017.
“I never over focus on that [seizures], because you can get a year like 2017 when it was €75m, which you might have one large seizure [there was a €37.5m haul of cannabis that year], where we mightn’t even have a prisoner.”
“It’s not a huge result when you don’t get prisoners. Seizures are significant in illustrating what’s happening, but not the most significant outcome for law enforcement. I would prefer seizing a much smaller quantity of drugs in the possession of a target.”
He said that 198kgs of cocaine has been seized so far this year – including the 172kg haul in Cork harbour last February. But it doesn’t include the 2,000 bags of coal – suspected to contain 500kgs of cocaine – that was intercepted in Rotterdam in July bound for Ireland and returned to Ireland.
The AC said it is “so expensive” to extract the cocaine from the coal, they will most likely only extract enough to secure a prosecution, which could be as little as tens of thousands of euro.
“You are not going to go to the expense to extract the full amount, but unfortunately you can never add that to your seizure data,” he said.
Also reflecting the continuing wealth in gangland, the DOCB has seized more than €4.9m in cash by the end of August, continuing the bumper seizure of €7.8m in 2020. This marked a massive increase on 2019, when €2.5m in cash was seized.
Overall, he believes the Garda output since the Regency has been massive: “I would suggest this is one of the most significant outcomes of an initiative anywhere in Europe – that level of output. If you look at the UK during those years and they were being decimated in numbers and crime rates were going up, there’s a significant possibility reduced sizes contributed to the situation.”
On the importance of the Special Crime Court in their efforts – and the high-level review, currently underway, into its future – AC O’Driscoll points out that the DOCB must meet the same standards as in the ordinary courts.
He said evidence accepted in the SCC in relation to subversives – so-called ‘opinion evidence’ of a chief superintendent that a defendant is a member of a paramilitary organisation – does not apply to crime.
He said most European countries operate a different system, with an investigating magistrate and far fewer witnesses called to trials.
He said murders in the Netherlands – this year of a journalist and two years ago of a lawyer – show the capacity of organised crime.
He pointed out Europol, the EU police agency, had said that “at least one Irish organised crime group [Kinahan cartel] was in the middle of the upper tier” of gangs capable of interfering with the criminal justice process through murder and other means.
AC O’Driscoll said the legislation underpinning the SCC is subject to the “scrutiny” of the Dáil every year and said the very high level of guilty pleas in the SCC “should be very reassuring” to the public.
He added: “The argument, if we are correct, that we’ve had a huge impact on reducing threat-to-life incidents, had we been dependent on the ordinary courts and not created a second SCC, some of the trials in these cases might not be taking place for another three years.
"Therefore, arguably the feud would have gone on longer, the deaths would have continued and we wouldn’t have been able to bring these people to trial, let alone have convictions. It all adds to the argument of continuing the SCC – that’s not to recognise it needs ongoing scrutiny.”
He said that in the small number of cases that “go wrong”, there is a benefit to society where the SCC will give a written verdict.
“The judgement will detail the defects in the case. Where there’s a jury trial and a not guilty verdict, there’s no judgement, that’s the end of it. Arguably, there’s a greater level of scrutiny in the Special Criminal Court.”