The off-the-cuff comment by the former justice minister didn't take long to come back and haunt him. Michael McDowell stated with ill-judged confidence in 2004 that gangland murders were soon to become a rarity. They were "the sting of a dying wasp", he asserted. His prediction couldn't have been further from the mark. In 2005, there were 16 gang-related killings – more than double the number than the year before – and McDowell was forced to eat his words and take action.
To much fanfare in 2005, the then justice minister announced that a major garda operation targeting gangland crime was to begin. No expense was to be spared. Operation Anvil meant business. Something had to be done to try and stem the bloodshed as young men, predominantly in Dublin and Limerick, proved they were willing and able to kill and be killed at an alarming pace.
In 2005, the country was awash with money and gangland feuding was at a pivotal point as criminals jostled for power and control of the lucrative cocaine market. The Crumlin/Drimnagh feud, which has claimed 16 lives, was gathering momentum and criminals in Limerick were beginning to act as though they were untouchable.
Operation Anvil was to target organised crime, focusing on crime gangs both small and large as well as the threat from dissidents. Officers began to have a visible presence around the country's gangland hotspots and specific operations to monitor serious criminals almost around the clock – such as the surveillance of murdered crime boss Martin 'Marlo' Hyland – were to be launched.
The new initiative was broadly welcomed and received extensive publicity. There was alarm among the general public about the ease and scale of gang murders and the reckless abandon up-and-coming criminals seemed to possess.
The announcement last week that Operation Anvil's budget has been slashed in half didn't create much of a stir in the media. This year, just €10m is available to the force compared to €21m last year.
Many senior gardaí are disappointed, but not surprised, by the announcement made by the new garda commissioner Martin Callinan. "It isn't as though gangland crime has disappeared," said one officer. "It never will, of course. But it's funny how things go in swings and roundabouts. In 2005 and 2006, the newspapers were all full of coverage of gangs and murders. Now it's all about the banks and the politicians. The press and general public aren't as interested in what's happening in gangland anymore. So as a result, neither are the politicians. People will care when another innocent person like Baiba Saulite or young Anthony Campbell gets caught in the crossfire again. Then people will want to know how the gardaí could let the gang situation get to this point. Then people will remember that half of the money to tackle this complicated problem was taken away."
Operation Anvil has got results. Initially, it was just Dublin-based, but it was rolled out nationwide once its effectiveness became apparent. In the first 10 months, 359 firearms were seized. The value of stolen property recovered in the same period was valued at €5.7m. It is an intelligence-driven operation, focusing often on targeting those involved in gun and drug crime, and is often reliant on overtime.
Despite its existence, in 2006 there were 19 gangland murders – three more than the year before. But gardaí were coming to grips with the situation. In 2007, there were 12 gang-related killings and, significantly, several serious criminals were prosecuted and taken off the streets.
"Since Anvil was set up, we have successfully dismantled some of the activities of serious crime gangs in this country," said another garda source. "The bloodshed in Crumlin and Drimnagh has more or less ended. And in Limerick we've seen some of the most serious players either imprisoned or leaving the country because of sustained pressure. But we know all too well that as soon as we begin to get a handle and dismantle one crime gang, another emerges elsewhere."
Gardaí were aware that Anvil's budget was to be cut and there have been rumours to that effect for over a year.
"It remains to be seen if some stations or areas will be hit while it won't affect others as much," said an officer from a busy city- centre station in Dublin 8, which has a high rate of gangland activity. "There are certain spots in inner-city Dublin and Limerick that we simply cannot take away resources that are needed to target gangland activity. There will always need to be a visible presence of gardaí in areas such as Sheriff Street and parts of Limerick."
There is a protocol involved when a senior garda wants to launch an operation targeting gang crime in their district.
"We compile a report stating what the problem is and how we want to target it. It could be a drug-dealing operation we have received intelligence about or a surveillance or plainclothes operation," said an officer based in the Dublin 9 area. "We estimate what the operation would cost and then submit the report. Then the powers that be come back with a yes or a no. I haven't had a no this year yet. But I am aware that it's only January. If it's a busy year, some stations could be in trouble. It all depends on who's locked up and who's on the street. You cannot underestimate how things calm down when the main players are out of the equation."
Senior gardaí know they will have to be astute with the money made available. "As the garda commissioner indicated, we will focus on intelligence-driven operations probably more so than surveillance. The cost of surveillance is massive. If you are talking about 24/7 surveillance of someone, that's 24 gardaí a day. That's expensive," said the garda from Dublin 9. "I imagine there will be less of that. It's about getting value for money now."
Over an 18-month period between 2005 and 2006, 3,472 arrests were made and 562 firearms were recovered under Operation Anvil. Gardaí also carried out 23,775 searches and 6,833 surveillance operations. Countless murder attempts have been thwarted because of sustained garda pressure.
"These are not things we can measure in a tangible way. But without a doubt, many many lives have been saved because of Operation Anvil," said another source.
Marlo Hyland's gang in Finglas was dismantled by a major operation that was an off-shoot of Anvil, codenamed Operation Oak. Gardaí are now worried that if a chief superintendent has concern about a gang growing in strength and influence – there is significant gangland activity in areas such as Ballyfermot and Clondalkin – the money to launch an investigation into its activities might not be there.
New garda commissioner Martin Callinan tried to remain as upbeat as possible when announcing the news that Anvil's budget has been drastically reduced. He said the cuts in garda numbers – from 14,500 now to 13,000 by 2014 – and reductions in budgets, particularly overtime budgets, posed "huge challenges" for the force.
In relation to the €10m earmarked for Operation Anvil, he was keen to stress that gardaí had to get on with the job. "It is a big drop, but, nonetheless, it means that we have to be more focused in terms of what we are doing," said Callinan, the first Dubliner to run the force.
He said he would "work within" the budget, but added he was not "solely reliant" on it.
"While Operation Anvil is a fund that has been associated in particular with special policing operations – and that is the case – I also have funding available to me to complement and expand on those operations if and when required."
Labour's justice spokesman Pat Rabbitte is seeking clarification from the justice minister on where exactly the commissioner might obtain other funding if the €10m runs out.
"We need more clarity. I have asked the minister where the commissioner would get additional money to target gangland [activity] as he has said he will do if needs be. I would not like to see a situation whereby people who are tormented by anti-social behavior do not have the same high standard of policing because those resources have been allocated to target the crime gangs."
Of five senior gardaí spoken to about the reduction in funding, all stressed it was an issue they felt able to deal with, for the moment at least.
"We have to take some pain, the same as everyone else. We just have to become better about how we handle our resources," said an officer from Limerick. "We will just have to be cleverer, more innovative and creative. If the need exists, I believe we will get the money we need. We have to stay positive."
It is impossible to measure what impact this will have on murder rates among the crime gangs this year. The gardaí may be low on cash but the criminals certainly aren't and they will continue their business of selling drugs regardless.
"We just have to wait and see how this year goes and deal with things as they come up," said the officer from Dublin 9.
"The problem is you just never know what will happen in gangland."
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