Border policing: Law and disorder in the land of omerta

Falling police numbers and a culture of mistrust makes the job difficult and perilous

Det Insp Pat Marry's cross-Border investigation began with the discovery of a burning Volkswagen Golf at Ravensdale Forest Park in Co Louth, on the night of March 7th, 2012.

The fused remains of two men – Joseph Redmond (25) and Anthony Burnett (31) – were found inside.

The Dundalk-based officer's investigation brought him and his team from the Republic into Northern Ireland as they gathered evidence linking Jason O'Driscoll to the murder of the two Dublin petty criminals.

Police Service of Northern Ireland officers helped identify a silver Mercedes seen entering a shop car park that night in Meigh, a village north of the Border in Co Armagh, along with CCTV footage showing O'Driscoll walking away from the car.

DNA evidence found in the Mercedes, later abandoned, linked O’Driscoll to the burnt-out Volkswagen.

Data recovered from a charred phone found by Marry's team in the Golf showed calls to a burner phone that officers discovered had been topped-up at a mobile phone shop in Newry.

Further investigation north of the Border required the permission of the PSNI. Marry rang PSNI chief Davy Beck, in charge of the Newry division, who outlined the difficulties of policing in the Border town.

“I told him I needed to go to certain shops and I needed to speak to certain people.

“He said it straight out to me: ‘If we go down there, they will spit at us and throw stones at us, but if you come up, you will probably have a better chance.’ He gave me written permission to come up and do inquiries north of the Border, which we did,” he said.

Marry, who has since retired, and his investigators called to shop owners in the North, gathering statements and CCTV footage. They were “very co-operative” with the Garda but it would have been a different story with the PSNI, he says. “One of them even said to us: ‘We will deal with you but don’t bring the PSNI around here.’ ”

CCTV footage on the day the phone was topped up showed O’Driscoll in the shop. It was among the evidence that in June 2018 helped convict the then 36-year-old Dublin native and Newry resident of the murders of Redmond and Burnett .

"It was textbook co-operation between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána. The people north of the Border would deal with An Garda Síochána but would not deal with the PSNI," says Marry, who recounts the investigation in a newly published book, The Making of a Detective, about his three decades in the force.

“It turned out to be hugely evidential for us. Without the co-operation of the PSNI we would not have been able to carry out the investigation. We were given permission to make inquiries and to take our statements.”

The retired detective believes that common-sense police-to-police investigations, where rank-and-file police can deal directly with each other across the Border, without the need for any higher level of intervention – as happened in the Ravensdale investigation – is the way to tackle cross-Border criminals.

“I didn’t go to anyone above me to get permission. I know if I took it any higher, it would be dropped like a hot potato instead of looking at what we were trying to achieve,” says Marry.

Lunney attack

The eight-year campaign of vandalism, intimidation and violence against the new managers of the group once owned by now bankrupt former billionaire Seán Quinn – culminating in the September 17th abduction and torture of executive Kevin Lunney – has shone a stark spotlight on the efficacy of policing along the Border.

The conglomerate of businesses selling products to the building industry straddles the Border on a road linking Ballyconnell in Co Cavan and Derrylin in Co Fermanagh.

More than 70 incidents of violence have taken place since Quinn lost control of the business, escalating earlier this year to assaults on Lunney and Dara O’Reilly, a fellow director of Quinn Industrial Holdings, which has run the building materials company on behalf of three US investment funds since December 2014.

Seán Quinn has repeatedly condemned and disavowed the attacks that have been carried out by people seeking to facilitate his return to the business he founded and built up.

Lunney’s kidnapping and torture pushed the violence to another level, leading to intense political and public pressure in the Republic to step up its efforts to catch the perpetrators and a suspected paymaster behind them.

The years-long campaign of violence is being seen as a direct challenge to the rule of law in that part of the country.

Former minister for justice Michael McDowell said the attacks highlighted "a failure of policing" and represented a "challenge to democracy and the legitimacy" of the Irish State and Northern Ireland.

Some, not just people in Cavan and Fermanagh, will see the fact that the first arrests in this investigation have taken place only this week as evidence that the State should have done more, and more quickly.

Equally it must be said that the management team in charge before the present set of executives sought a joint Garda/PSNI task force in 2014. A joint investigation was not announced until last week. By 2014, three years of intimidation and violence had been carried out against those in charge of the businesses. Five more years of attacks followed.

Now police on both sides of the Border have responded with unprecedented action. The Garda and PSNI have established the first joint investigative team to investigate the gang suspected of being behind the Lunney attack. The investigation will be overseen by EU police co-operation agency Eurojust.

Depleted resources

To those familiar with policing, the joint investigation, coinciding with a series of raids on houses in the Border region, Dublin and England last week, comes after years of inadequately resourced policing south of the Border and a policing environment on the Northern side that has never normalised despite the peace process.

Former Fianna Fáil TD and minister for justice Dermot Ahern, who represented Co Louth, said the "relative peace" since the 1998 Belfast Agreement led to a "de-escalation" of Garda resources along the Border. "Unfortunately, because of that and other issues – former paramilitaries involving themselves in criminality – there is a general feeling in the Border areas that the situation is not getting the attention it deserves," he says.

Garda Representative Association divisional representative for Cavan-Monaghan James Morrisroe notes the number of rank-and-file gardaí in the Ballyconnell area has fallen from 35 to 13 since 2011. The area, stretching 60km from Blacklion to Belturbet, has also lost a superintendent and inspector, further depleting the force in an area.

Alan McQuillan, a former assistant chief constable of the RUC and PSNI who later headed up Northern Ireland's now defunct Assets Recovery Agency, believes that cross-Border smuggling gangs have been allowed to continue operating unchecked during the peace process, contributing to a sense of lawlessness along the Border.

“There was a strategy by the British government to let sleeping dogs lie, to keep the peace process going at absolutely all costs and therefore not disturbing certain factions within the republican movement,” he says.

More practically, policing republican Borders areas in Northern Ireland has proven complicated, as some in local communities do not accept the legitimacy of the PSNI, as the Newry police chief noted to Marry.

Peter Sheridan, a retired RUC and PSNI assistant chief constable from Co Fermanagh, says the "security challenges make normal policing much more difficult along the Border", and police in the North cannot operate the same way along the northern side as their Garda colleagues can on theirs.

This has been "exploited" by organised criminal gangs, who take advantage not just of gaps in policing across the Border but across international boundaries into Europe and beyond, as the recent human-trafficking case in Essex involving the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants has shown.

A joint North-South policing initiative is nothing new. The so-called Fresh Start Agreement of November 2015, signed by then Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan and PSNI chief constable George Hamilton, aimed to combat cross-Border organised crime and oversee co-ordination in police operations. The State's Criminal Law (Jurisdiction) Act 1976 permits cross-Border prosecutions and the arrest of a suspect in the South for a crime committed in the North.

Operational gap

However, a major operational gap remains in cross-Border investigations that is carefully exploited by gangs, including those suspected of orchestrating the campaign against the former Quinn businesses.

During “hot pursuits” – where police chase suspects – neither the PSNI or the Garda is permitted to continue a pursuit across the Border.

PSNI figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show that 63 police chases ended at the Border between 2011 and 2017, of which nine were pursuits from the North to the South.

The records show 14 arrests in seven of the pursuits, meaning that in 56 of the incidents the suspects escaped, and that the PSNI informed the Garda in almost all of the North-to-South pursuits when the chases were terminated.

Notably, there were no pursuits on the Ballyconnell-Derrylin road in the list released by the PSNI, though this may be explained by suspects seeking to avoid Ballyconnell Garda station, which is on the main route between the two towns.

Brexit fears

Concerns about the likely impact of Brexit on cross-Border policing have led to recommendations that the UK and Ireland consider implementing security arrangements similar to those under the Schengen convention, Europe’s 34-year-old open-border arrangement that permits hot pursuits by police from one European country into another.

Cyril McGuinness, the criminal known locally in the Cavan-Fermanagh Border area as “Dublin Jimmy”, is said to have goaded gardaí who pursued him to the Border in a bid to arrest him before he reached his home in Northern Ireland, near Derrylin.

McGuinness, believed to be a ringleader behind the QIH attacks, died of a suspected heart attack at a house in Derbyshire during one of last week’s police raids.

The climate of fear created by McGuinness in the area – combined with the still-fresh memories of the killing and dumping of informers along the Border during the Troubles – has created a culture of silence or omerta in those parts that makes policing extremely difficult and dangerous.

Marry describes it as a “blanket of fear”.

This can only be addressed, says Morrisroe, by putting more police on the ground to rebuild the trust of the community. In the absence of that, organised criminals will thrive around the Border.

“That’s what terrorism and organised crime gangs do – they exploit that fear in people,” said Sheridan, the former PSNI chief constable. “The vast majority of people would be absolutely horrified by what has happened down there, but even those people would find it very difficult to put their hand up.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent