The Border foxes: why no arrests in the killing of Det Garda Adrian Donohoe?

It is a year since Det Garda Adrian Donohoe was shot dead during the robbery of Lordship Credit Union, in Co Louth, and the investigation continues north and south of the Border. But why no arrests?

Sea of blue: Adrian Donohoe’s funeral drew more than 3,500 fellow officers, about 2,500 of whom were in uniform. Photographs: Ciara Wilkinson, Arthur Carron/Collins and Dara Mac Dónaill. Montage: Dearbhla Kelly

Sea of blue: Adrian Donohoe’s funeral drew more than 3,500 fellow officers, about 2,500 of whom were in uniform. Photographs: Ciara Wilkinson, Arthur Carron/Collins and Dara Mac Dónaill. Montage: Dearbhla Kelly

Sat, Jan 25, 2014, 01:00

He was shot in the head as soon as he stepped from his vehicle. Det Garda Adrian Donohoe and his partner, Det Garda Joe Ryan, both based at Dundalk Garda station, had arrived at Lordship Credit Union at Bellurgan, Co Louth, on the night of January 25th, 2013, a year ago today. They were there to provide an armed escort for staff bringing money to a night safe in Dundalk.

After they drove into the car park, at about 9.30pm, in an unmarked silver Ford Mondeo, a navy-blue VW Passat pulled across its entrance, blocking them in. Det Garda Donohoe, armed with a Sig Sauer pistol, got out of his car, intending to approach the other vehicle.

The killer was one of three or four men who had been hiding behind a wall six or seven metres away and ran towards their victim. The gun fired as they moved.

The gang roared at Joe Ryan to stay back or they would shoot him too. They used a hammer to break the window of a car owned by one of the credit-union staff, and grabbed a bag of money containing just over €4,000. They missed another bag that contained about €30,000. They took the keys from the unmarked Mondeo and sped from the scene in their stolen car.

As the Garda and PSNI swarmed both sides of the Border, the killers escaped back into south Armagh, the area known during the Troubles as “bandit country” because of the IRA’s strength there. Their getaway vehicle was later found, burned out, on a remote roadway in the wooded area of Cumsons Road, Newtownhamilton, between the villages of Darley and Keady.

The emergency services that arrived on the scene of the shooting in Lordship tried desperately to save Adrian Donohoe but were unable to do so. He was 41.

Adrian Donohoe died across the road from Bellurgan school, which his children, eight-year-old Amy and nine-year-old Niall, attend; their family home is a couple of kilometres up the road. Dundalk Garda station is seven kilometres away.

The children’s mother and Adrian’s widow, Caroline Donohoe, is also a member of the Garda, based at the same Dundalk station at which her husband had spent his career. Caroline, who is from Co Clare, said that they clicked from the moment they met, on their first day as fresh-faced recruits at the Garda College in Templemore, Co Tipperary, in 1994. From Kilnaleck in Co Cavan, Adrian married Caroline in Kilkee, Co Clare, and they settled on the Cooley peninsula.

They were not from the community they policed, but they quickly became pillars of it. A former under-21 Cavan footballer, Adrian threw himself into coaching St Patrick’s GFC – the Pats – in Lordship parish.

“There’s nothing Adrian wouldn’t have done for us. Sure he was just the best in the whole world,” she said at the People of the Year Awards last September, when her husband was honoured posthumously. “Adrian was the best father any child could ever have. There was nobody like Adrian, and Adrian was the love of my life, and I will miss him every minute of every day as long as I live.”

When they gathered to bury Adrian Donohoe the crowds spilled into the freezing rain in the car park of St Joseph’s Redemptorist Church in Dundalk, and for some distance down the street. There was a heavy political presence and extensive media coverage.

Mourners marvelled at the sea of navy blue created by the biggest gathering, in living memory, of uniformed gardaí. Estimates put the number of officers at more than 3,500, with about 2,500 of them in uniform. Twelve months later that same force has yet to make an arrest.

The men gardaí say are the five suspects are from Crossmaglen in south Armagh. They have gone to the PSNI in the North and made statements through solicitors, denying any involvement in the crime, a common practice there by people expecting a knock on the door.

Since then, four suspects have left Northern Ireland; three are still away and at least two are believed to be in the US. They have been monitored by US authorities, which made an offer to the Irish authorities to stop the men entering the United States. It was not accepted because the investigating team was not ready for arrests. Gardaí have travelled to the US and invited the men to make statements there, to no avail.

The investigation began with the exhaustive job of gathering CCTV footage from all over north Louth and south Armagh. The scene of the killing was examined forensically for almost a week. Mobile-phone records were analysed. A panel-beater’s hammer found at the scene yielded a DNA profile.

The blue VW Passat that the gang used was discovered to have been stolen during a burglary at a family home in Clogherhead, Co Louth, in the week of the murder.

In the early stages the investigative team numbered between 100 and 150; there is no longer enough work on the case to keep that many people busy.

Experienced gardaí say the cross-Border nature of Det Garda Donohoe’s murder complicates the investigation. “If they were a gang from a part of Dublin, or Limerick, or wherever, you immediately have access to all of the intelligence built up on them over the years. They know if one of them has recently fallen out with a girlfriend and it’s all off, or if someone they owe money to is pissed off they can’t get paid.

“And it’s these people that you get the really high-grade intelligence from – the few bits and pieces that might make all the difference. If they lived in the South you could squeeze them, and the people around them, and come up with snippets of information to edge it forward.”

Another Garda source says that because of the troubled policing history of south Armagh the PSNI does not have the same ability to harvest information from the public there or from criminal sources.

“And if [the PSNI] went in there undercover to sit on these guys, they would stick out an absolute mile. So these bastards have a few things going for them.”

Another garda says that although the PSNI “couldn’t do enough for you” in carrying out basic requests, such as taking witness statements, the arrest, detention and interrogation of hostile suspects are much more difficult.

In many areas, especially in south Armagh, the PSNI must assess the threat to its officers’ safety before going into an area to carry out a search or arrest at the request of the Garda. This can result in a need for public-order units, blastproof Land Rovers and a police helicopter to monitor the operation. The scale of such an event would be likely to alert a suspect.

“And because it has to be such a big operation, and [because of] the risk involved, you have to have very good reason for asking them to do it. So your opportunities for doing things we take for granted are very, very limited.”

Another source says that even if a suspect for the murder was arrested in the North, huge challenges would remain. Suspects in any crime can be extradited to the Republic only if the Director of Public Prosecutions has approved criminal charges. They cannot be extradited to be questioned.

If arrested in the North, suspects for the Donohoe murder must be questioned there by the PSNI on behalf of the Garda. “You can be in the room when the questions are being asked, but you can’t ask the questions yourself, and you can’t butt in and start suggesting follow-up questions during the interrogation,” says one garda with first-hand experience of the process. “It probably prevents you getting into their heads. And that can be really crucial if there’s a gang involved and you are trying to turn one of them.”

Another source believes the best chance the investigation has now is to get close to a suspect who was there on the night, but did not pull the trigger, and do a deal. This would mean a more lenient charge in exchange for their evidence to secure murder convictions against the others. The witness would leave the island on completion of a jail term.

Other sources point to the fact that the McCarthy-Dundon gang in Limerick saw some of its leaders jailed for life for murder. Their convictions were secured on the basis of incriminating evidence from former girlfriends who were in the inner circle.

But the same officers add that the murder of 21-year-old Paul Quinn was an example of the difficulties in trying to get people from south Armagh to come forward. Quinn was beaten so badly by a group of up to 10 men armed with iron bars and pickaxe handles at a farm near Oram, Co Monaghan, in October 2007 that he died.

His killing is widely regarded as having its roots in a dispute about fuel laundering and to have occurred at the hands of men who were in the south Armagh brigade of the Provisional IRA, although it was not sanctioned by IRA leadership.

“People knew what happened, but they were just too afraid to come forward,” says a Garda source. “And in many places in south Armagh down the years, people have learned not to challenge the republican structures they believe can still control an area. And then you have crimes like smuggling on top of that: cigarettes, laundered fuel. It’s not called ‘bandit country’ for nothing.

“So that group dynamic is still there, people who think they are above the law and in many cases think they are the law.

“You are dealing with a place where people have learned not to even talk to each other about what’s going on. So going to talk to the Garda or the PSNI is unthinkable, even if the crime has nothing to do with what you might call the republican movement.”

Conor Murphy, the Sinn Féin MLA for Newry-Armagh and a former republican prisoner, says much of the coverage of the suspects’ alleged links to south Armagh has been insulting to the people from the area. “It’s not a criminals’ paradise,” he says. “ ‘Bandit country’ was a term carefully designed by the British because it explained away a political resistance in the area into a criminal one. And that has stuck. And then you get lazy journalism that categorises it as a place where nobody speaks [to the police]. We have encouraged anyone who has information to come forward and report it. I don’t think there’s any communal decision not to report it. I think that’s complete bullshit.”

Murphy believes that mechanisms for swifter and easier policing co-operation could easily be put in place if the political will existed. “I don’t think you would meet any resistance along the Border to the PSNI being able to go into the Republic during a chase and at the Garda being able to come the other way, things like that.”

Since 2007, when the PSNI began to engage with the community in and around Crossmaglen – rather than simply patrol in reinforced vehicles – a “decent” relationship has developed between the police and the community, says Murphy.

Gone are the watchtowers in the village, and the British army base, complete with helicopter pad and “20 to 30” flights per day that once took off and landed beside Crossmaglen Rangers GAA pitches.

But it’s not quite normal, either. Crossmaglen PSNI station is still not visible from the road because of the seven-metre reinforced wall around it, which has an electric fence on top. Of the Irish and British army bases this writer has visited around the world, it is more heavily fortified than any Irish Army base in Chad, Liberia or Lebanon, and more resembles the bases the British army used in Basra and Baghdad, in Iraq.

The police do not patrol on foot here and still often move about in small convoys of vehicles, sometimes armoured Land Rovers. Adrian Donohoe lived in the area he policed. That would be unthinkable in south Armagh.

The former senator Maurice Hayes, who worked on the Patten Commission, which was established in 1998 to set out the blueprint for reforming policing in Northern Ireland after the Belfast Agreement, believes there are still major difficulties with the effective policing of south Armagh.

Once, while reviewing healthcare in the area, a medical professional agreed to meet and talk to him. “But he insisted we drive out to the middle of a bog, and even then he whispered when he spoke to me,” he says.

“He didn’t want the British to leave, because they provided the best helicopter-ambulance service. But he was making sure not to say this within earshot of anyone. That kind of stuff would be typical.

“There is a sense of it being a place apart that operates by its own rules. It’s a place that’s suspicious and repellent of outsiders. That must be very hard for any police force to deal with.”

Hayes believes the people involved in the shooting of Adrian Donohoe were an embarrassment to their republican community. Although some in that movement might have considered supplying information to the investigation, “then they think about it, and local and family loyalty takes over”.

Hayes says more needs to be done to bring the PSNI and the Garda closer, and to facilitate seamless cross-Border investigation of crimes such as Adrian Donohoe’s killing.

The Patten Commission expressed shock, for example, that there was no provision for a Garda team to travel to the North to help with the investigation of the Omagh bombing. This was despite the chief protagonists being from Co Louth and gardaí there knowing the gang members and their modus operandi.

Patten recommended that such investigation pooling become the norm, but this never happened. The Adrian Donohoe investigation “would have been given a better chance” if it had.

“If you have to wait for days or weeks and go through procedures, things go cold or people go offside, which seems to have happened in this case. And people cook up their stories. It makes it much harder.”

A number of gardaí warn against reading anything into the lack of arrests or charges to date. “Because of the cross-Border thing, we’re probably going to get one crack at these, and they probably won’t be arrested until they are going to be charged,” says one.

“We can’t be issuing a press release every time it moves forward. There are plenty of cases in which arrests in very difficult investigations took years but people were still charged . . . There is plenty going on that journalists don’t know about. It’s being kept tight, but there have been plenty of searches in the past while.”

A former Garda assistant commissioner, Martin Donnellan, believes the failure to arrest the suspects in the immediate aftermath of the crime was a mistake. “It’s difficult to know, but if I was making the call on it I would have like to have seen them arrested before they left Northern Ireland,” he says.

Donnellan believes a failure to act quickly sometimes emboldens young criminals, meaning they became less nervous or remorseful in time. “It’s harder to rattle them the longer it goes on . . . The momentum is there when it’s all still fresh.

“But circumstantial evidence can be enough . . . You just have to keep at it, getting little extra bits of the jigsaw and adding it all up. The clock is ticking. There’s no point in saying it’s not. But you have to keep at it, and they’ll do that.”

Will the crime be solved? “I really hope so,” says Donellan. “My heart says it will. My head says it’s 50-50.”

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