State security ‘took priority’ over tackling drugs in 1960s

Irish groups are ‘criminal co-operatives’ rather than organised gangs, meeting hears

Former minister for justice Nora Owen and former CAB legal officer Barry Galvin pictured prior to the meeting of the Irish Association of Former Parliamentarians. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Former minister for justice Nora Owen and former CAB legal officer Barry Galvin pictured prior to the meeting of the Irish Association of Former Parliamentarians. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times


Drugs and the IRA arrived together in the late 1960s, but security of the State took priority and received most resources, a gathering of former parliamentarians was told today.

Former member of the Garda Ombudsman Commission Conor Brady said Ireland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world but one of the highest illegal drugs usage rates in the EU.

“Over the decades that drugs were insinuating themselves into Irish life, the bulk of Garda resources, the bulk of Garda energies and most of the personnel in detective areas went into the struggle against subversion,” he said during a meeting of the Irish Association of Former Parliamentarians in the Seanad chamber.

By the time resources were put into dealing with illegal drugs in the 1980s, it was a “classic case of too little, too late”.

And they had to be aware of the “hidden costs of the Troubles which we continue to pay in the drugs problem”.

Mr Brady, a former editor of The Irish Times said drugs and the IRA arrived together in the late 1960s as far as the Garda was concerned. “But the responses to the two challenges were very different.”

He told the Irish Association of Former Parliamentarians that within months of the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland the special Criminal Courts were in operation, a wing had been cleared in Mountjoy prison to house subversive prisoners.

However, he said “the establishment simply didn’t treat drugs as a priority”.

The first drugs squad was established in 1968 with three staff. This increased to nine three years later, when at the same time 600 extra gardaí were assigned to the Border.

He said one drug squad detective said to him in the 1980s: “I wish the Provos would get into the drugs trade, then I might get some resources.”

Mr Brady said many of the most ambitious gardaí knew that the way to advance their careers was in the security sector. “Over those decades, very few got to the highest ranks by catching drug dealers.”

It was only with the emergence of Concerned Parents Against Drugs in the mid-1980s, with the fear communities could be subverted by the IRA, that the Dublin city drug squads got resources.

Profound changes were made and legislation used to combat the IRA was transferred to dealing with organised crime, but where previously the word of a chief superintendent could convict, now the word of a “suitably qualified person” could convict and it could be a prison officer, a solicitor or even another prisoner.

He said civic policing will always take second place to security objectives. A police service directly controlled by central Government, wherein promotion is ultimately in the hands of the political elite, where there is no effective independent authority, will inevitably put its obligations to central government ahead of those to the community in which it is placed, Mr Brady argued.

Former detective superintendent Noel Clarke said there was a need to focus on informal ties between members of an organised crime group and they should be considered perhaps as “criminal co-operatives” rather than organisations who have fixed leaders and structures.

He believed this “accurately describes organised crime in Ireland” and explains why various law enforcement agencies have difficulty in implementing strategy to counter organised crime.

Organised crime has been near the top of the political agenda since the deaths in 1996 of Det Garda Jerry McCabe and crime correspondent Veronica Guerin.

There are primarily two categories of organised crime groups operating in Ireland, Mr Clarke said. The first are individual groups that are well established and tightly structured, involved in drug trafficking, armed robbery and firearm offences.

The second category has less cohesive group structures and criminal activities mainly confined to Ireland. He said because of the relatively fluid nature of those involved it is not easy to place them in a particular group as they moved between both.

Mr Clarke, who was in charge of human trafficking investigations before his retirement, highlighted crime fighting targets including counterfeiting, reducing the production of synthetic drugs and cybercrime.

He said one cyber terrorist could do more harm than an organised criminal organisation.