'I would have real fears about impact of divisional changes'

Retired Garda Inspector Donal Ashe voices concerns about changes as he looks back on a career in which he did everything from surveilling Martin Cahill to prosecuting cases

Dónal Nolan

From keeping tabs on the 'General' to running informants in major criminal operations, resolving tense hostage situations and prosecuting cases before the district courts, few careers appear as exciting in the rearview mirror as a garda's.

That's just a smattering of the experience of newly retired Keel native Donal Ashe, who left the service at the end of 2019 as an Inspector.

In his time he has worked under some of the most austere circumstances ever to encumber a police force in western Europe, from the '80s to the recent recession.

But it is sweeping changes to An Garda Síochána nationwide, not least within the Southern Policing Division of which Kerry is a constituent, that is causing the soft-spoken policeman greatest concern on leaving the force.

"Change will always happen and you have to deal with it, but I'm not too sure about the current re-organisation of An Garda Síochána that's underway," Insp Ashe told The Kerryman.

It's proposed to split the Southern Division of Limerick, Cork and Kerry - overseen since time immemorial by a Cork-based Regional Assistant Commissioner - in a way that would leave Kerry as a single division.

"That's my real worry as Kerry would be one of the smallest divisions in the entire country, left entirely on its own," he said.

"In those circumstances I would worry that the force in Kerry would not be able to have its voice heard, and I think it will suffer as a result, unable to get the resources other divisions would get.

"The Commissioner [Drew Harris] is saying you need 600 to 800 members per division for it to be self-sufficient. There are only 340 members or so in Kerry."

Other sweeping changes are proposed, including the possibility that Superintendents in each of the districts of Kerry will not only be responsible for their area but for a separate category of policing, from crime to community policing and so on.

Donal leaves the force with a wealth of experience to his name. 1983 was a big year for him as he married his wife, Mary (with whom he has three sons, Kieran, Donal and Emmet) and passed out from Templemore.

But his first posting left him distinctly underwhelmed, stuck in Donnybrook for the first 18 months: "It was boring and disillusioning, it was protection posts and special beats all associated with diplomats and political threats," Donal explained.

Tallaght changed all that. Posted there in 1985, it's where he really cut his teeth as a cop.

"It was wild," Donal recalled. With sweet Fanny Adams in resources, Donal and colleagues were tasked with policing the crime-ridden sprawl from a tiny station in the centre of the old village - all at the height of the joyriding craze in the capital.

"The change from Donnybrook was unreal, it was a real baptism of fire and you would be dealing with everything from burglaries to murders, and the joyriding was mad there at the time. But we coped the best we could."

It was in Tallaght the personable Kerry man developed his people skills, including that most important people skill of all for a garda - making contacts. His first three months in Tallaght were spent serving summonses: "At the time the Tallaght Bypass site was given as an address to the courts by lads before the law right across the country, so we'd have to go in and figure out who was who... I was able to develop great contacts as a result of what I learned there," Donal added.

During the mid-to-late '80s he was in the Central Detective Unit - a precursor to the National Bureau of Investigation - and the stakes got higher again: "Our task was to monitor the 'General' Martin Cahill and I got to know his whole gang, including the likes of John Gilligan."

The detectives sat on them day and night, following each member of the gang when they moved, trying to build cases and foil their criminal plots: "You couldn't let them walk all over you; you had to stand up to them and while it could be tough at time we had great support."

In one memorable episode, Donal blew the lid off a post office heist racket run by another well-known figure of Dublin gangland: "I had him before the Special Criminal Court... I got info from a contact that there was stuff in the house and searched it, uncovering £5,000-worth of stamps taken in a robbery as well as an electronic incendiary device, similar to one used in a Post Office robbery some days earlier where they had strapped it to the chest of an employee threatening to blow them up if they didn't hand over the money."

Following his CDU work, Donal was at turns in Special Branch - part of the team that worked the Arklow 'Bomb Factory' case - until his promotion to Sergeant in 1993, after which he worked transport in HQ as well as the anti-racketeering squad, set up to probe the Provos' links to organised crime. By the time he came back to Kerry he was a hardened city cop. November 1995 saw him posted to Ballylongford. 

"It was a big shock altogether, a lot quieter than what I was used to by then, but a lovely village with fine people. From Ballylongford I went into Listowel as SIC (Sergeant-in-Charge) for 12 years. I really enjoyed Listowel, it is a great place to work, with very nice people there. It has its challenges no more than any other place, and is at the centre of a large territory," he said.

Donal was again promoted in 2007, to Inspector, moving to Anglesea Street station in Cork, where he started to cut his teeth in the courts prosecuting cases, and where he was responsible for a large degree for policing the busy nightlife in the Leeside city: "It was all very enjoyable I have to say, and I was transferred to Tralee in 2007, which I found to be another great town to work in."

When asked as to the toughtest individual situations of his career, Donal spoke of one highly-stressful hostage situation:  "I remember one event where someone was armed and threatengin a hostage they had tied up at knifepoint. 

"It was very tense, and you enter into that situation knowing you can take it that if it goes wrong there will likely be an inquiry into how you dealt with it. "It went on for some time, but with the help of colleagues we eventually managed to distract him and we broke down the door and were able to get him away. The relief was unreal."

Donal is far from such circumstances now, enjoying life in his native Keel, where he's been since the return from Dublin and where he is an integral member of the community with a strong involvement in the GAA: "I've no hard plans of yet; I'll take a few months to consider things and will be busy involved in the club, and I keep sheep too, 60 ewes at the moment, so I'll still have plenty to do."