Gang crime: The quarry changes but the chase stays the same

Michael O'Sullivan now takes over as director of MAOC-N. Picture:

Having retired from the force after 39 years, Michael O’Sullivan has seen gangs come and go, and has no doubt what faces the Kinahan cartel. He talks to Cormac O’Keeffe

Threats to State security have bookended Michael O’Sullivan’s career over 40 years. Back in 1977, it was from subversives; in 2017, it is from organised crime. It was the IRA then; it is the Kinahan cartel now.

“You could certainly describe it as a threat to the community, to society, then and now,” said Mr O’Sullivan, who retired as assistant commissioner over a week ago. “Unfortunately in this country, we have a chequered history of violent gangs, asserting their violence among the community in various manners, each one of them presenting a separate challenge.”

When he joined in 1977, the country was still reeling from the murder of British ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs in July 1976 — blown up in his car in Dublin by the IRA.

Mr O’Sullivan joined the Special Task Force, an armed intervention unit tasked with combating the “IRA active service units along the border”. The force subsequently became the Emergency Response Unit, which, like its predecessor, is part of the Special Detective Unit.

Dessie O’Hare, the Dunnes, and the Kinahans

Mr O’Sullivan said it is important for younger people today, bewildered by the power and notoriety of the Kinahan cartel, to realise that violent gangs, whether subversive or criminal, have been seen before.

He listed out a few notorious crimes:

  • The 1983 kidnap of Don Tidey by the IRA, which ended in a bloody shoot-out in Leitrim, resulting in the death of a trainee garda and a soldier;
  • The 1986 kidnap of Jennifer Guinness by Uzi-brandishing criminals, led by John Cunningham (subsequently a lieutenant for Christy Kinahan);
  • The 1987 kidnap and torture of John O’Grady by INLA leader Dessie O’Hare, ending in a shoot-out in Cabra, Dublin, and resulting in a garda being seriously wounded.

Dessie O’Hare
Dessie O’Hare

“I’ve seen all these things come and go, I’ve seen them shoot policemen and soldiers,” said Mr O’Sullivan. “The like of Dessie O’Hare active service units were serious operators, serious violent operators, shooting at checkpoints and robbing at will.”

He said there was also the emergence of drug gangs at the late 1970s and early 1890s with the beginning of the heroin epidemic in Ireland.

“I arrested most of the Dunnes [notorious south inner-city family], not Larry though.”

Mr O’Sullivan said that, by 1982, he was part of a small undercover unit nicknamed the Mockies, a unit which included current Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan.

“Micky Dunne sold me heroin in 1982 and got seven years for that,” he said.

Within a number of years, but only after the Dunne brothers had inflicted horrendous damage on the inner city, the gardaí dismantled the outfit.

“We broke their stranglehold on the heroin trade and some of them ended up in prison,” said Mr O’Sullivan.

Four years later, he arrested Christy Kinahan, who had moved from being a fraudster to the drug business.

“It was 1986 and I caught him with a load of heroin in Clontarf and he got six years for it.”


Threats to the security of the State continued, reaching a climax in what was a heady summer of 1996. First was the savage killing on June 7 of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe by an IRA active service unit wielding an AK47. Just over a fortnight later, journalist Veronica Guerin was shot dead in her car in broad daylight by the Gilligan gang. That was one “milestone” in Irish organised crime.

Jerry McCabe
Jerry McCabe

Twenty years on from that came a second milestone in gangland, when masked men, dressed like elite gardaí, brandished AK47s outside a Dublin hotel in the middle of the day — all captured by photographers and broadcast around the world.

“They were two major milestones: Veronica Guerin and Regency [Hotel] — shooting journalists in the middle of the day and running around in public with Kalashnikovs,” said Mr O’Sullivan.

They were also milestones in the response by gardaí. “[The gangs] both overstepped the mark and believed their own propaganda — that ‘we can do this and get away with it’.”

He said it was a catalyst to an unprecedented Garda response: “We dismantled the Gilligan gang because the guards were given the resources. It took time. They proactively went after them and, bit by bit, got people on the periphery and people inside.

“Look at the people arrested and prosecuted. The crime gang was dismantled. CAB was introduced. All because the resources were given to gardaí.”

Mr O’Sullivan aid the same happened after the Regency attack.

“Look at the record in the last six months against the Kinahans. There’s constant pressure, people are getting caught, drugs and firearms are being seized, cars are being seized, bank accounts are being frozen, 18 [assassination] attempts have been thwarted, people are before the courts, people are on the run. They are being hit on all sides.”

Dismantling the cartel

Mr O’Sullivan is confident that the Kinahan cartel, like the Gilligan gang before them, will be broken up.

“The Kinahan cartel will be dismantled,” he said. “Without a doubt, they will be dismantled.

“With the Regency, you talk to me in a few years’ time and look back, let’s see where everybody is. A lot of these guys will be locked up, dead, or wiped out. That’s what has happened to other gangs before.

“Show me a criminal gang that has stood the test of time — there’s none of them.”

Gang crime: The quarry changes but the chase stays the same

He said the additional difficulty in dismantling the Kinahan cartel is that the top leadership is based abroad, in Spain and further afield.

“It is more difficult when people are outside the country, but we are in close contact with Spain. They were here with us and we were there with them [in a joint operation in October].

“Yes, it is more challenging. But remember, the reason they are abroad is because they can’t withstand the pressure in this country, it’s as simple as that.

“People frequently give out about the guards. If countries dealt with them as we dealt with them they would be stateless.”

He said Irish and Spanish police were working closely together to target the Kinahan cartel.

“The Spanish and the guards are co-operating because they have a common problem. In both countries, people overstepped the line,” said Mr O’Sullivan. There is no going back.

“They can do what they want, they can declare all the ceasefires they want, but there is no going back. We have started against this criminal organisation and we’re not going to finish until it’s over.”

Untouchables and hitmen

He said the media can build up crime bosses as “godfathers” who are “untouchable” and doing what they will. “They say there are godfathers here and there. He’s a dead godfather now or he is doing 10 years. This untouchable fella, you’ll never guess he was caught.

“None of them are really untouchable. When you bring enough pressure, you will find weaknesses and you will find cracks.”

He also had a swipe at media descriptions of ‘hitmen’ being used by the gangs.

“This is not The Day of the Jackal stuff. They are giving guns to thugs who you wouldn’t send across the road to the shops. There’s every chance they will make an arse of it. They are as likely as blow the legs off themselves or shoot all around them.”

This reality has resulted in two completely innocent bystanders — Martin O’Rourke and Trevor O’Neill — being shot dead by Kinahan gunmen.

Cutbacks and prevention

In relation to preventing new generations of criminals in certain communities joining gangs such as the Kinahan cartel, he said community policing plays a part.

“Our community policing is a role model,” he said. “More could be done, but bear in mind we are down 1,500 gardaí.

“The scale of community gardaí is relative to the scale of recruitment. We didn’t recruit for five years.”

He recognised the attraction for some young people when they see criminals driving around in new cars, wearing new clothes, doing their houses up and going on holidays.

“These individuals have a certain lifespan. If the kids could realise, yeah this guy is doing great for three to four years, then he is in dead or in prison.

“All we can do is keep working with the youngsters and the communities. But there are some dysfunctional families, who, if you put Jesus Christ walking among them, they will still commit crime.”

Drug seizures

A former head of the Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, Mr O’Sullivan said gardaí have had major successes against drug traffickers.

“I think we have a good handle on the situation. You can see that with the seizures and the arrests.

“People tend to think there’s loads of drugs around, what are the guards doing? But the guards can’t do it on their own. You need treatment and rehabilitation to reduce the consumer base. That’s they way to reduce the market.”

Gang crime: The quarry changes but the chase stays the same

On plans for injecting centres for chronic heroin addicts, he said: “You are dealing with people who have a dysfunctional lifestyle. They use laneways [to inject] and are all over the place. If [the injecting centre] works, grand, it works. Let’s try it and see. It is the least of our challenges. The challenge is to reduce the heroin consumer base.”

Mr O’Sullivan now takes over as director of MAOC-N, an EU police co-ordinating body tasked with combating drug trafficking from the Americas to Europe.

Ireland was one of seven founding countries (with both a Garda and a customs representative). The agency has use of the naval power of the likes of Britain and France. The US Drug Enforcement Administration also has a presence at MAOC-N headquarters in Lisbon.

Still on Kinahan’s tail

Given Christy Kinahan’s connections with drug traffickers from South America, it is likely that Mr O’Sullivan’s path will continue to cross that of his old enemy.

“It’s quite possible,” he said. “I’ve been crossing paths with the Kinahans since 1986. They say he’s got a slice of Brazil. If he has, he has.”

He said that before the murder of Veronica Guerin, Irish criminals did not have direct links with South American traffickers. He said a “small handful” of drug bosses do now, Kinahan among them.

On the feud, Mr O’Sullivan said the “steam will go out of it eventually”, but said it could take many years.

“It depends on people coming to their senses,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s over. It’s in the hearts and minds of people; of a son, of a brother, a nephew, or a cousin, who five years down the road walks into a pub and shoots someone on the other side.

“We’ve had feuds that have gone on for 15 years, on and off, not with the same intensity, the same media focus, the same madness as this.”

Is there one thing that could take the steam out of the situation?

“You need to get the people who are driving it,” said Mr O’Sullivan.


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