Last September, armed gardaí charged with tackling Ireland's drugs criminals searched properties 200km apart in Mountmellick, Co Laois, and the tiny village of Lisselton, Co Kerry, seizing nearly €4 million in cash.
The raids illustrated a few things. Drugs have reached every part of the State and the trade is booming, despite every pub and nightclub in the country having been shut for the previous six months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Most significantly, the money – the biggest cash haul ever discovered in a gangland operation in the Republic – was not owned by the Kinahan cartel. Instead, it was owned by a gang barely known by the public, but is known in the media as “The Family”.
The tag is a misnomer, since only two of the West Dublin gang’s leading members are related. However, they have taken over prime position from the Kinahan cartel’s Irish operation following a slow and steady climb away from tabloid headlines.
So what of the Irish drugs trade? What condition is it in after more than a year of lockdown? And just who are “The Family” and how have they quietly grown so much to challenge the supremacy of the Kinahans.
Everything in gangland has been in flux since the Regency Hotel killing in February 2016 when the feud between the Kinahans and Gerry Hutch erupted into the public glare, with the death of Kinahan loyalist David Byrne.
The Regency attacks have damaged both sides. Dozens have been jailed. Others have been forced to flee abroad to escape the Garda, their rivals or having had their assets seized. “It was a disaster; an unmitigated disaster for them from every point of view,” says one senior garda.
Convulsions followed, including a series of killings of young men in their early 20s in North Dublin – none of which were related to the Kinahan-Hutch feud. “That has probably created a bit of a void in terms of who’s going to continue the trade,” said Pat Leahy, deputy commissioner at the time.
While younger, less experienced criminals fought openly, others such as the gang known as “The Family” quietly fed off the carcass of the Kinahan cartel’s Irish operation, hampered as it has been by Garda surveillance.
The family gang gets its name from brothers, Brian (43) and Philip Grendon (45). When Brian Grendon was aged 25 in 2002, and then of Greenfort Drive, Ronanstown, Dublin, he was jailed for six years for his role in a €1.5 million heroin deal.
Philip Grendon – with previous address at Greenfort Drive, Ronanstown and Spiddal Road, Ballyfermot – was jailed in Spain for seven years for drug crimes. Spanish police in 2014 found suitcases containing cocaine valued at €3.8 million in a hotel in Valencia; one of which Grendon had thrown out of his room in the apparent belief somebody was about to attack him to steal it. He is understood to have been released in 2019.
Based in Ballyfermot and Clondalkin, the gang was known for dealing in heroin. However, it expanded its range in recent years, selling to smaller gangs throughout the island. It is now, say senior Garda sources, the biggest domestic drugs gang in the Republic.
The people they have replaced, the Kinahan cartel's Irish operation (the Byrne-organised crime group) was led Liam Byrne (40), Crumlin, Dublin, when the Regency attack occurred in 2016 and earlier by ally Freddie Thompson (41), Loreto Road, Maryland, Dublin 8.
Byrne had his assets, including his home, taken by Cab in the Garda clampdown after the Regency. Thompson is serving life for a feud-related murder, a conviction secured during the Garda post-Regency clampdown.
“The Grendons managed to seize the opportunity while the others were feuding. They’re not feuding with anyone and, really, they are huge now,” said one source. “But the trouble is that the life cycle of these leading criminals is short enough. They tend to give it a massive blast at the top for about five or six active years and then they’re either dead or in jail. And there’s always going to be others to fill the void. But the Grendons’ desire has been to make money; not getting into feuding, not getting distracted.”
Booming drugs trade
Like the Kinahans and the Byrne gang, they used a west Dublin luxury car garage to launder drugs money. But they too are now facing investigation by Cab, losing cash, jewellery and vehicles in a series of raids by the State agency.
Last year should have been a bad year for drug dealers. Bars and nightclubs were shut, lots of young people were unemployed, or surviving on €350-a-week Pandemic Unemployment Payment. Yet every indicator available suggests a booming drugs trade. However, it was anything but.
Seizures of drugs and money generated by drugs have soared to record levels. The number of drugs crimes last year were at Celtic Tiger levels, up by 9 per cent to 23,285 offences on 2019. In 2008, the height of the Celtic Tiger, gardaí prosecuted 23,354 people for drugs offences.
Streets were deserted for most of last year, while Garda Covid-19 checkpoints and higher visibility on the streets made low-level street dealing and drug deliveries easier to detect and the movement of larger consignments more risky.
Nevertheless, consumption has not fallen.
“The one thing you can say about the trends is that it puts to bed any notion that drugs are a pub and nightclub problem. People are taking drugs, cannabis and cocaine in particular, as part of their daily routines.
“It’s not linked to their social life, it’s part of everyday life. And an awful lot of people are doing it. You can talk about checkpoints all you want, but you don’t get drug crime back to record levels during a year like last year without huge numbers of people taking drugs,” said one experienced garda.
Dealers and users have become more resourceful.
"We've had young lads selling drugs on Snapchat and Instagram, cycle and van couriers or even taxi men selling or delivering. But that's nothing new in the pandemic, that's all as old as mobile phones and social media.
“But that way of operating went into overdrive during the pandemic; you could call it drug dealing’s click-and-collect,” he told The Irish Times, while colleagues say that drug supplies were not “significantly interrupted” anywhere, even when major seizures are made.
Gardaí have been helped, too, by policing wins on the continent
An analysis by The Irish Times of trends in drug crimes across the Republic supports that, with the evidence showing that Dublin still has the biggest drugs problem in the State. But recorded drug crime grew much faster last year in the regions.
In Mayo, for example, drug crime was up by 97 per cent, compared to 2019. Other increases include: Cavan (44 per cent increase); Tipperary (43 per cent); Clare (32 per cent); Louth (24 per cent); Sligo-Leitrim (20 per cent); Donegal (19 per cent); Wicklow (17 per cent); and Kilkenny-Carlow (12 per cent).
However, the rate of growth across Dublin was much lower, and in some Garda divisions in the capital drug crime was either flat or reduced. But in the Dublin Metropolitan Region Western division, covering Blanchardstown and surrounding districts, it surged by 48 per cent.
There, the number of offences increased to 3,204 last year, from 2,169 in 2019. The Cork City Garda division was similar; the number of recorded drug crimes there increasing by 43 per cent last year to 1,518 offences.
Cash seizures are revealing
The cash seizures by gardaí tell a story too. Gangs are being forced to hoard cash, since the pandemic has severely limited their ability to “launder” money, since nearly every big cash-generating business in the State was shut by lockdown, while those that stayed open mostly took card payments.
“You’re talking everything from fast-food takeaways, pubs, nightclubs, dry cleaners, shops; just about any business with lots cash changing hands and that you could run drugs money through to make it seem like its revenue from a legitimate business,” said one money-laundering expert.
Meanwhile, the gardaí have got better at tracking illicit money over the last decade. In 2012 suspicious transaction reports were introduced in the Republic, which obliged financial institutions to report such transactions to the Garda and Revenue Commissioners.
Up to 2017, Ireland, as found in 2017 by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force – an intergovernmental body that develops anti-money laundering policy – was slow to prosecute for money laundering, believing that such prosecutions were won only with great difficulty.
Since the publication of the Paris judgment, which was seen as damaging to the Irish justice system, the Garda has put much greater emphasis on trying to find cash, rather than seeing drugs and guns as the main target, and to pursue people for money laundering.
They have been helped, too, by policing wins on the continent. Last year European police hacked the EncroChat encrypted mobile phone service used by many gangland criminals as they believed it was unhackable.
Information about Irish criminals – including messages they sent to each other – emerged from the hack and was passed on to the Garda. That information has helped gardaí make some of the recent seizures of cash and drugs.
“There are very large numbers of arrests now for money laundering and that’s a relatively new feature. It’s as good now, from an investigators point of view, to get €1 million in cash than it is to get €1 million in drugs. In fact it’s better,” said a Garda source.
So what will be the last legacy of the pandemic within the drugs trade?
“I think more and more people have had to find their own source for drugs because the usual route of getting it from friends down the pub or in a nightclub was lost,” said one detective.
“I think a lot more people will probably have a number in their phone now for someone they can get drugs from and I think that’s a recipe for even more drug use in the future. But really it probably depends on the economy. If it booms, the drugs game will boom.”