High-visibility policing is only a short-term solution
More gardaí and funding are needed to keep gangland criminals under surveillance
Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan speaking at a press conference on gang violence at Garda headquarters in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
The outbreak of gun violence on the streets of Dublin in recent days is a reversal of what for years has been a declining and calmer underworld in the city.
The gangland feuds in Dublin and Limerick that erupted in tandem with the drugs trade from the late 1990s have all petered out as the vast majority of the key gang figures were murdered or imprisoned for long periods.
Demand for recreational drugs – by far the biggest part of the overall illegal drugs trade – plummeted when recession set in and hammered disposable incomes.
Drug crime increased by 65 per cent from 2004 to 2008, when it peaked at 23,404 offences. It declined by almost 45 per cent from the end of 2008 to the end of 2014.
The gun crime that so often accompanies drug dealing has also fallen off a cliff.
The offence of discharging a firearm increased by 55 per cent between 2003 and 2008 and has since fallen by almost half. Possession of a firearm offences followed a similar pattern.
But with two major Irish crime gangs with a presence at home and abroad now embroiled in a bitter gun dispute, what can the Garda do to get control?
And would more gardaí and a larger budget, especially for the overtime needed for surveillance and investigations, not be a lot more useful than the high-visibility measures announced by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald yesterday that might deter serious crime for a period but does not solve it?
In the days following last Friday’s attack that claimed the life of David Byrne at Dublin’s Regency Hotel, the Garda erected armed checkpoints in Crumlin where he was from and in the north inner city where the men believed to have been behind his murder are from.
This tactic is designed to reassure local communities and the wider public that the Garda has acknowledged the seriousness of the violence and is moving swiftly to quell it.
The checkpoints are also intended to deter gang members from attempting reprisal attacks.
It is much harder to get to and from a murder scene or move guns about when the likelihood of encountering gardaí is very high.
Obviously the checkpoints and patrols put in place in recent days failed on Monday night when Eddie Hutch was shot dead at his home in the inner city. But gardaí cannot be everywhere and even hapless criminals will sometimes be lucky.
However, most people don’t want to live in areas where armed police in quasi-military outfits are permanently on the streets. It means the high-visibility saturation policing by specialist Garda units, as outlined by Ms Fitzgerald yesterday, is by its nature only ever a short-term measure.
Looking for mistakes
When its members were ambushed in spectacular fashion by an armed group last Friday at a boxing tournament weigh-in, the Kinahan gang wanted to hit back and to do so quickly and decisively.
But when murders are carried out in haste, mistakes are often made and perpetrators caught and jailed as a result.
And this is what appears to have happened after the murder of Hutch.
A silver BMW found abandoned in Drumcondra after the incident is believed to have been the getaway car. An effort to burn it out failed and balaclavas and a can of petrol were found inside.
The balaclava may yield vital DNA evidence that will link the suspects to the murder and result in a life-term for one or several criminals.
It is breakthroughs like this that secured the convictions against many gang leaders currently in jail and gardaí will work very hard on what might be a very lucky break.
In reality, the war against gangs is won in much less spectacular fashion.
Key members are put under surveillance and their every movement, however boring, is tracked. When possible, their mobile phones are tapped and informants are secretly pumped for information.
When the resources are made available for this type of work over prolonged periods results follow. However, despite the Garda’s best efforts, there can be prolonged periods when nothing of real evidential value emerges.
It means Garda managers must commit long-term. And in a climate when budgets – especially the overtime on which surveillance runs – have reduced as much as in the Republic, gathering information in this way is often seen as expendable.
This is exactly what the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors said had happened in recent years.
Unlike more visible forms of policing that more immediately affect the general public, cutting back on surveillance to save money is not noticed by anyone outside the force.
However, it leads to intelligence failures with the gangs getting ahead of the Garda. And further serious crimes unfold with no warning. And when they do, the Garda’s investigations are starting with reduced information on their suspects.
A small or medium-sized drugs haul or the discovery of one firearm or a single death threat made can land a gangland criminal in prison for a very long sentence if there is sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution and secure a conviction.
However, when budgets and Garda manpower are reduced, the investigations prioritised are those that emerge in the media and which there is public pressure to solve.
As with surveillance, when the existence of some criminal investigations is not known publicly they are the easiest to set aside in times of reduced Garda resources.
But if senior management remain committed to them and, crucially, have the budget to fund them long-term, they can lock away the criminals like those behind the serious violence of recent days.
The worry about the measures unveiled yesterday is that the Government appears to have responded with extra high-visibility and armed policing.
These can deter and contain gangland for periods but they do not solve crimes.