Following the murder of 17-year-old Keane Mulready Woods in mid-January, gardaí and residents in Drogheda had every reason to think 2020 was going to be a bad year.
The nature of the Drogheda youth’s murder – he was dismembered and the remains dumped around Dublin – was surely a sign the gang violence in the Co Louth town was escalating into a more deadly phase.
These fears seemed to be borne out in April when Dublin gangland figure Robbie Lawlor was shot dead. Lawlor was one of the chief suspects behind the teenager’s murder, leading gardaí in Dublin and Louth to brace for a wave of tit-for-tat killings.
Then, not much happened. The obvious reason for the lack of follow-up violence is Covid-19. The thousands of Garda checkpoints and patrols put in place to enforce pandemic restrictions made any reprisal hit a very risky undertaking.
But it may not be the only reason. Sources say the death of Lawlor, a notoriously violent and unstable criminal, was welcomed even by his own side of the feud. He was a destabilising factor and bad for business meaning there was little appetite for revenge.
In almost every other 2020 crime trend, from burglary to assault, the pandemic was undoubtedly the primary driving factor.
There were 74 homicides in the first three quarters of the year with about half of these relating to incidents of dangerous driving causing death. To put this in context, Ireland’s worst recent year for homicides was 2007 with 152 deaths.
The list of this year’s homicides shows some clear trends. After Lawlor’s death in April there was just one murder which was in any way gang related, that of Thomas McCarthy in Ballyfermot in Dublin in July (the chief suspect has ties to organised crime).
Almost every other killing seemed to be the result of an altercation, domestic violence or severe mental health crisis. One of the most shocking was the murder of trainee solicitor Mark O’Sullivan in his home in Kanturk, Co Cork in November. Gardaí believe Mark’s father Tadg and brother Diarmuid killed him before taking their own lives in a dispute over inheritance.
Many of these cases are now before the courts, including the man accused of murdering Det Garda Colm Horkan with his own firearm in Castlerea, Co Roscommon in June. The accused, who has been receiving treatment in the Central Mental Hospital since his arrest, is expected to go on trial in about a year.
Covid-19 has affected crime in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Property theft and home burglaries are down 32 and 44 per cent respectively since the start of the pandemic as businesses closed and people remained at home.
Public assaults dropped by 34 per cent due to the almost complete cessation of the night-time economy. This is assumed to be to blame for a 12 per cent increase in assaults occurring inside the home.
These factors also led to some unexpected successes for gardaí. The closure of cash businesses used by criminals to launder money, such as pubs and garages, forced them to stockpile cash in private homes. This has led to more of it turning up in searches; in the first 10 months of 2020, gardaí seized €16.5 million, up from €7.44 in all of 2019.
The same is true for drug seizures. While the market for drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine remains strong, there has been a significant drop-off in demand for so-called party drugs including cocaine and ecstasy, leading to more of it being discovered by gardaí in the hands of dealers.
Opportunistic seizures of significant amounts of drugs and weapons were also made by Gardaí operating Covid-19 checkpoints
At the start of the pandemic, rape and domestic violence groups feared a surge in violence against women forced to spend extended periods of time in the home with abusive husbands, partners or family members.
Those fears have been at least partially borne out. Under Operation Faoiseamh, a dedicated operation targeting domestic violence during the pandemic, gardaí received 22,540 reports of domestic violence and related crimes, up almost 17 per cent on the same period last year. Calls to domestic violence helplines are also at record levels.