Gangland mocks as killers of a fearless journalist go free on Dublin streets

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Five months after the Dublin government promised to track down the murderers of crime reporter Veronica Guerin no one has yet been charged with ordering or carrying out the shooting. Gardai sources have warned privately that lack of forensic evidence linking suspects with her shooting on 26 June has reduced the chances of a successful prosecution.

None the less, some gardai are reported to have identified Guerin's killer and his accomplice, who drove a motorbike. One suspect is said to be hiding in England, the other in Spain. A motorbike found in the river Liffey is believed to have been used by the killers.

Detectives have also succeeded in generally disrupting crime. Drug importing and the tobacco smuggling associated with suspects for the murder have come under scrutiny. By this week, 131 people had been arrested and questioned, 276 searches carried out, and drugs and pounds 600,000 cash seized.

The investigation has curtailed a guns-for-hire operation, with more than 100 illegal guns seized in a sweep that has yielded a sophisticated laser-sight automatic shotgun along with rifles and pistols.

One site, searched repeatedly by gardai, is Dublin's St Vincent's hospital boilerhouse, where a military assault rifle and a hand-gun were found hidden in an air-vent. Property has been seized by the newly formed Criminal Assets Bureau, which targets criminals seldom in personal possession of drugs.

The significant development has been the arrest of Paul "Hippo" Ward, 32, an unemployed man of Windmill Park, Crumlin, south Dublin. Last month he was charged with sheltering Guerin's killers after the attack and with taking part in the conspiracy to murder her.

The Gardai commissioner has rejected suggestions that Guerin was killed after discovering links between leading criminals and certain gardai. However, a garda from Tallaght, south-west Dublin, was last month charged with accepting a bribe and perverting the course of justice. John O'Neill, 32, resigned from the force when arrested.

That the assassination of a nationally known figure and one-time researcher for the Taoiseach was contemplated at all, speaks volumes about Dublin gang leaders' swaggering sense of invulnerability. It does not help that police effectiveness has been seen to have weakened.

Critics of the Gardai complain that Dublin's meagre specialist drug squad of 15 officers was disbanded last year. "There is now no full-time operational drugs squad in Dublin," said Chris Finnegan, national secretary of the Gardai Federation. Last year that job was handed to local stations, backed by a national drugs intelligence unit.

Criminal morale must also have been raised by early releases from prisons forced by overcrowding, and by a tortuously slow summons system which, from 1993, allowed the release of serious criminal suspects while the Director of Public Prosecutions deter- mined whether to bring charges. In addition, 1,000 offenders are illegally at large after breaching temporary release terms or jumping bail.

The Gardai is 1,250 officers short of its approved strength of 12,000. Only 42 per cent of Gardai are in the greater Dublin area, which accounts for two-thirds of the country's crime. A new Gardai commissioner, Pat Byrne, who has a background in combating the IRA, was appointed during the summer. Guerin's killing ended discussion of appointing a civilian head of the force.

The new commissioner's first public initiative in September, Operation Docas (Hope), increased numbers of uniformed gardai on street patrol as a deterrent to drug dealers.

For reasons which are as yet unclear, this move has coincided with a fall in inner-city crime. The drop may also be related to the angry marches by residents on homes of alleged dealers during the past 18 months, in south inner-city Dublin and south-west satellite areas, as the addict population has soared with falling heroin prices.

Some politicians suspect Operation Docas has been launched partly to reassert the primacy of the Gardai against a challenge by vigilantes. Demonstrations have demanded tougher gardai action against drug dealers, and pushed for the eviction of dealers, a policy adopted by local authorities.

Last month a cabinet committee on measures to reduce demand for drugs allocated pounds 14m to anti-drugs projects and to improving conditions on housing estates. Its report warned that there could be up to 8,000 addicts in the greater Dublin region.

Some other initiatives, however, have been criticised as reactive and lacking calculated strategy. For instance, a government referendum on Thursday will, if passed, make the risk that serious offenders could continue to commit crime a legal justification for refusing bail. With a delay until next year in adding an extra 700 prison places this move may simply add to the problems.