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Drug war Garda boss says Regency attack 'blindsided us' but turnaround has been positive

John O'Driscoll has made good on the pledge he made as a rookie in force

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John O’Driscoll, Assistant Commissioner in charge of the OSC

John O’Driscoll, Assistant Commissioner in charge of the OSC

John O’Driscoll, Assistant Commissioner in charge of the OSC

In 1981 the Garda Review magazine asked a fresh-faced young recruit in Templemore about his aspirations for the future.

The enthusiastic - and highly unusual - reply from the young Dubliner was greeted with wry smiles by his more hard-bitten superiors.

The northsider grandly declared that he wanted to influence policing policy in An Garda Síochána in the future.

The reaction was not helped by the fact that at the time 'Dubs' were relatively rare in the ranks and were viewed with a fair degree of suspicion in an organisation dominated by 'culchies'.

John O'Driscoll's superiors assumed a stint on the streets of inner-city Dublin would soon dull his youthful zeal, as it did for many rookies.

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Gunmen enter the Regency Hotel.

Gunmen enter the Regency Hotel.

Gunmen enter the Regency Hotel.

 

The raw reality of dealing with the heroin plague and crime that fed on generations of ingrained poverty, neglect and social deprivation tended to calm the ardour of even the most eager novice.

But during four decades on the frontline, investigating organised crime, Mr O'Driscoll says he never wavered in his ambitions for the job.

Now as Assistant Commissioner in charge of the Organised and Serious Crime service (OSC) - formerly known as Special Crime Operations - he is responsible for co-ordinating the Garda's national investigation units.

The OSC is one of the largest portfolios in the force and is made up of more than 700 expert detectives attached to six specialist bureaus dealing with corruption, murder, drug trafficking, cyber crime, illegal immigration, fraud, money laundering, domestic abuse and human trafficking.

Mr O'Driscoll had a baptism of fire in the role, having been appointed shortly after the 2016 Regency Hotel attack, which sparked the ­Kinahan-Hutch feud.

The Regency and the subsequent bloodshed it unleashed - 15 murders in two years - exposed glaring deficiencies in An Garda Síochána's ability to tackle organised crime.

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"There is no doubt that we were blindsided at the time (of the Regency) and there were deficiencies due to a lack of resources," Mr O'Driscoll told the Herald. "But no one expected that there would be such a turnaround."

The organisation's ability to respond to crime had been hollowed out at every level after years of swingeing cutbacks in resources imposed by a cash-strapped government.

Senior officers were incentivised to retire early while a ban on recruitment was imposed for several years. There was little overtime money to fill the gaps.

But as the feud exploded the Government pumped money into policing.

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A Garda cordon outside the Regency Hotel in February 2016

A Garda cordon outside the Regency Hotel in February 2016

A Garda cordon outside the Regency Hotel in February 2016

 

Mr O'Driscoll found himself in the right place at the right time. The targeting of the Kinahan cartel was as much personal as it was business for the OSC boss.

He had developed strong links with the communities that were being terrorised as the cartel's hitmen tried to wipe out the family and friends of Gerry 'the Monk' Hutch. It was the neighbourhood where Mr O'Driscoll cut his teeth as a rookie.

"There was a deep-rooted suspicion of the police in the inner city which went back generations and we worked to build trust with them," he recalls.

"That involved us targeting several of the big heroin dealers who had inflicted so much misery on the communities - every time one of them was prosecuted and imprisoned it brought a measure of relief to the local people."

After the Regency his first priority was to see the newly established Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau (DOCB) fully operational to take on the Kinahan cartel.

Dozens of enthusiastic gardaí were recruited and state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and techniques were deployed so that criminals were secretly recorded planning murders and drug shipments.

With more than 60 of its core members, including hitmen and gang leaders, behind bars; the seizure of over €200m worth of drugs; the capture of over 130 weapons and the prevention of 70 planned assassins, the feud and the cartel's stranglehold is no more.

Gaining the upper hand has had lasting effects: last year there were two gang-related murders in the country, the lowest number recorded in two decades.

Keeping the public informed of progress in the battle with organised crime is an important part of his strategy.

"We want the communities to see that something is being done about the people causing the misery.

"It is impossible to completely stop the drug trade but we are managing it by disrupting criminal groups and denying them the money which is the source of their power."

He argues that money is also part of gardaí's power because "when resources are restricted law enforcement is reactionary but when you have the proper resources our specialist units can be proactive".

"The critical thing about our approach is that every day we are planning strategies in relation to organised crime targets," he says.

"But the DOCB is only part of that effort. Each of the crime bureaus target crime in their particular area of expertise and they regularly work together, depending on the type of investigation.

"The many convictions we have had in the courts relating not just to gangland crime but also domestic violence, cyber crime and fraud shows that our strategies are working."

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