Last week Dermot Ahern (above) said that the legislation was now in place and that it was up to the gardaí to use it. Gardaí say it is not that simple and that the sheer speed of the introduction of the laws caught them on the hop

It was announced amid fanfare last June. The groundbreaking legislation would take the fight to gangland criminals and finally give gardaí the upper hand in a war that was clearly being lost.

The new laws certainly were draconian. For the first time suspects could be tried before the non-jury Special Criminal Court and the word of a senior garda that a person was directing a criminal gang would be enough to send that individual to prison for life.

Gardaí wouldn't even have to prove that the suspect had committed a specific crime; merely that he was the mastermind behind an organised crime gang.

The gardaí would also be allowed to break into suspects' homes, offices and cars to plant bugs and electronic surveillance equipment and the secretly recorded words of the unwitting criminals could be used against them in court.

Within days of the legislation being rushed into law, senior gardaí were briefing favoured crime correspondents who happily swallowed lines about the "imminent" arrests of some of Ireland's most dangerous criminals.

All very well in theory, but over six months later the amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill have not been utilised at all and gangland criminals still have carte blanche to organise murders with virtual impunity. The recent gangland murders of three men in less than two days, organised by one man – 'Mr Big' from Finglas, in Dublin – have shown that criminals are not expecting to be arrested any time soon under the new laws.

They are probably right.

Several senior garda sources say that although evidence is being gathered about the activities of up to 30 individuals, it will be months – probably at least the summer – before the new legislation is used.

Even then, gardaí say they have serious doubts about whether the legislation will actually survive its first airing at the Special Criminal Court.

They say it is "inevitable" that the first suspect tried under the legislation will take an appeal to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality.

This will probably result in a wait of at least a year before the case is even heard, meaning that, in the best-case scenario, it will be the summer of 2011 before the legislation is properly used.

The 18-month gap is seriously concerning gardaí. Mr Big has organised at least 13 murders in the last two years and is showing no signs of slowing down.

He is, without a doubt, the biggest criminal operating at the moment, possibly the most dangerous in the history of the state, and is number-one priority on the gardaí's list of criminals.

However, he is not likely to be the first person detained under the new laws. Because of the doubts over the legality of the amended legislation, informed sources say that the garda tactic will be to use a criminal at the lower end of the food chain as a test case of the legislation.

That way, if it is declared unconstitutional and needs to be struck down, gardaí will not have revealed their evidence against Mr Big.

Although this tactic is sensible, it means that he will be free to organise further murders, but gardaí are reconciling themselves with the fact that he is due to stand trial soon for a serious offence and will be handed a lengthy prison sentence if he is convicted.

Justice minister Dermot Ahern has championed the new legislation he rushed through the houses of the Oireachtas last summer. At the time he said the new laws sent out "a clear message to those involved in criminal gangs that we are taking you head on. These so-called crime lords have shown a blatant disregard for human life and an arrogance that they in some way believe they can operate outside the criminal justice system because of intimidation and threats."

Intimidation and threats are still rife though. At the recent trial of gangland leader Brian Rattigan, witnesses were intimidated into not appearing in court and two gardaí were openly threatened with murder during the case.

Gardaí caught on the hop

Last week Ahern said that the legislation was now in place and that it was up to the gardaí to use it. Gardaí say it is not that simple and that the sheer speed of the introduction of the laws caught them on the hop, which meant that they were playing catch-up.

It wasn't just the gardaí taken by surprise. Labour's Pat Rabbitte, while supporting the legislation, was critical of the speed at which it was introduced. He said: "It's no way to make law. All of these measures are complex and important... There is an element here of seeking to wrong-foot the opposition."

It is believed that gardaí have drawn up a list of approximately 25 to 30 individuals regarded as being involved in membership of or directing criminal gangs.

It is understood that five or six of those names are from the feuding Limerick gangs, three or four are from the Crumlin/Drimnagh areas, two or three from the south-inner city, two or three from Finglas and the remainder from the north-inner city and north Dublin.

Although the laws were without doubt rushed through, gardaí are not entirely blameless for the lack of action so far when it comes to implementing them.

Senior sources say it wasn't until the commissioner's conference in Templemore last October that superintendents and chief superintendents from every garda region were even asked to put together a list of criminals from their areas suitable to be targeted under the amended legislation.

Added to the delay, gardaí involved in investigating names on the list had to go on special training courses, move to new offices in each district and learn about the intricacies of the laws.

Individual gardaí are also unhappy that officers tasked with implementing the laws were not asked for input before they were drafted. They say that some of the contentious aspects could have been avoided if more dialogue had taken place.

When detectives finally do get around to collating evidence against the targeted criminals, they will have to send files to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) who will have to review them and determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed with charges.

The DPP's office invariably poses a series of questions and asks for clarifications, which often takes several months, so the procedure is sure to be a slow and cumbersome one.

Gathering the evidence which will be needed to secure convictions works on a number of different levels. Teams of local detectives across the country are currently collating all sightings and intelligence reports of known criminals who have been associating with each other over the last few years.

Every time two known criminals are seen together it is collated on the garda Pulse system and a permanent record is kept. This will be admissible in the Special Criminal Court, as will photographs of the suspect with known criminals taken at gangland funerals or other social functions by undercover gardaí.

It will fall to specialist national units to come up with more sensitive evidence which will be central to proving that the suspect is either a member of a criminal gang or is directing a gang.

In many cases the homes, phones, known haunts, cars and business premises of suspected senior criminals are already bugged with electronic cameras and recording equipment.

The bugging of suspects has long taken place for intelligence-gathering purposes but the Criminal Justice Surveillance Bill, which is now law, makes provision for this evidence to be used in court cases.

It is effectively convicting criminals with their own words and it will be the most powerful weapon that gardaí have in their armoury.

Detectives from the National Surveillance Unit and Organised Crime Unit have been tasked with gathering this covert evidence.

Scales of justice

There is no doubt that the new laws – when they are finally routinely used – do push the scales of justice back in favour of the gardaí.

Expert garda opinion evidence on the existence and operations of criminal gangs will be admissible in court, including controversial hearsay evidence, which is the word of a senior officer of his belief that the suspect is involved in serious crime.

A person arrested under these provisions can be detained for 48 hours, with an extension up to seven days, when authorised by a court. Such an application may be held in private at the discretion of the judge, and no information may be published about the application other than the fact that it has been made.

There is also a provision that certain information supporting the application may be given in the absence of the suspect and his or her legal representative.

It is not just gardaí who are frustrated with the slow pace of the Criminal Justice Bill. Opposition TDs are also upset by the snail's pace.

"Minister Dermot Ahern promised that within weeks of the legislation being passed in July very senior gangland bosses would be brought to justice," Fine Gael's Charlie Flanagan told the Sunday Tribune.

"This was the principal reason why the legislation was enacted – to facilitate what he described as a major crackdown. That just has not happened. People have not been arrested and nobody to my knowledge has been before the courts in respect of the new legislation.

"The dogs on the street are able to bark the names of these major gangland figures. Their names are well-known and yet they are not being convicted of anything, let alone arrested.

"We supported the legislation on the basis that we had publicly called for robust laws that would help eradicate gangland crime. Unfortunately, legislation is only as good as the resources that are available and it is clear that enforcement of this is a problem."

The garda press office failed to put forward a spokesperson to discuss this story.