Eight years ago, almost to the day of the shocking attack at Dublin’s Regency Hotel last Friday, the Garda’s Organised Crime Unit was launched.
The now-retired Fachtna Murphy was garda commissioner and, while the economic boom was just about to go bang, there was still plenty of money for policing.
In fact, the Garda was in the middle of an accelerated recruitment programme and spending on overtime – and everything else – was at an all-time high.
Murphy told a passing-out ceremony at the Garda College, Templemore, Co Tipperary, on February 1st, 2008, that the unit would have 70 staff to begin with.
It would tackle armed drugs gangs, with the emphasis placed on surveillance operations, in which gardaí would closely and constantly track serious gangland criminals.
“I want the Organised Crime Unit to target those people, to be in their faces,” he said.
There were no gardaí "in the faces" of anyone at the Regency Hotel last Friday afternoon when an attack more reminiscent of the terrorist strike on Charlie Hebdo in Paris last January than a Dublin underworld murder unfolded.
The Garda cannot be everywhere and even hapless criminals will sometimes be lucky. It is also easy to be wise after the fact. However, a number of newspapers who monitor events – mostly for their photographic archive – where they know serious criminals will be present were in attendance at the Regency.
And the journalists – not to mention the murder gang – knew key drug dealer Daniel Kinahan would be present.
And once he was there, so too would be a rogues gallery of, at the very least, the men who work the streets of Dublin for Kinahan and his father Christy Kinahan – Ireland’s biggest drug dealer.
But when the bullets began to fly, the only thing resembling Garda members on the scene where three of the five gunmen dressed in mock-up combat-style Garda rapid response unit uniforms and carrying AK-47s.
It is difficult to fault individual Garda members or even specific Garda units for an absence of personnel from last Friday’s event.
Cut to the bone
Garda numbers, and, crucially, the overtime budgets on which almost all surveillance is run, have been cut to the bone.
In November the Public Accounts Committee was told the Garda’s total overtime budget had been cut from €138 million in 2007 to €34 million last year; a 75 per cent reduction.
The level of spending deemed acceptable in the days of plenty was perhaps excessive and there was little control over the quality of some of the operations it funded, gardaí will admit privately.
But now, they argue, the cuts have gone too far. The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors has said that, against such a large reduction in overtime and the loss of almost 2,000 members from the force in recent years, surveillance operations are now seen as an extravagance.
General secretary John Jacob explained that officers had such small budgets they were unable to spend on surveillance for fear of running out of money when major crimes needed to be investigated later in the year.
“Everyone is moving pieces around the chessboard to make it look like there’s enough resources, but there’s just not,” said Mr Jacob.
And it was not only overtime but also the specialist Garda units that fight terrorism and organised crime that were chronically underfunded. The age-old intelligence-gathering practice of collating was suffering as a result.
This involves every piece of information about known criminals being entered onto the Garda’s computerised Pulse database every time a member of the force observed them. The information creates a profile of known criminals’ lives over many years.
If anyone was worth placing under surveillance and collating last weekend it was Daniel Kinahan. He was at the weigh-in last Friday in an official capacity and had let it be known publicly he would be there. The media knew he would be there, as did his would-be assassins.
He makes only infrequent trips to Ireland from his base in Spain, meaning the opportunities for Irish law enforcers to physically put their eyeballs on one of their biggest targets are very limited.
Monitoring him on trips home over a long period would reveal the identities of those he had grown close to and was working with.
Any sudden absences of associates, or even romantic interests, would suggest a cooling or ending of those relationships.
Such developments can offer fertile ground for detectives looking for members of a criminal’s inner circle whose loyalty has come to a sudden and possibly acrimonious end to share information.
In practice, either the media showed more curiosity than the Garda last Friday afternoon or there was no money to turn Garda curiosity in Kinahan into some “in your face” time.
Whatever the case, the scenario is depressing.
It also begs the question that if a brief visit to Dublin by a key member of the biggest off-shore gang supplying the Irish drugs market does not justify spending on surveillance, then what exactly does?
Garda Headquarters has said it had no intelligence to suggest an attack was imminent.
Given that the money is not available to watch people like the Kinahans for even a couple of days in Dublin, it is perhaps not surprising no warning signs were spotted.