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Garda ar LárRTÉ One, Monday, 7.30pm (Repeat)

Programme 5: Garda Recruit Gary Sheehan

Monday 16th February 2009

On 24th November 1983, a supermarket executive was dropping his 13 year old daughter to school when on the road outside his home in south Dublin he was stopped at what appeared to be a Garda checkpoint - once he identified himself - what had been a normal school run turned into a nightmare as the bogus gardaí produced guns and dramatically kidnapped Don Tidey. This was to be the start of a 3 week ordeal for the English man. The whole country would be turned upside down in the manhunt which made Quinnsworth's DonTidey a household name and the whole episiode would end in the tragic loss of two lives.

This was not the first high profile kidnapping that year and it was clear that the IRA were the prime suspects. The Fine Gael / Labour Coalition Government held the line with a strong policy against paying any ransom.

"It was Govt policy not to allow ransoms to be paid because any ransom would be used to buy arms and this could only make the situation worse - this was Govt. Policy when Fianna Fáil was in power as well. The Government had no other option at that time but to hunt for Tidey's kidnappers." Michael Noonan TD - Minister for Justice in 1983

With very little to go on the nationwide searches seemed futile and as days became weeks the Quinnsworth Supermarket chain used all their stores to appeal to the public for help. The television appeals by Mr. Tidey's three children were even more poignant as they had only recently lost their mother.

Eventually intelligence lead the search back to a strongly republican area in North Leitrim and with only weeks before Christmas a co-ordinated search code-named Operation Santa Claus was mounted in the Ballinamore area. The Army as well as Gardaí and even Garda Recruits, still in training, were pressed into service.

"I was sent over as an Inspector to Ballinamore - allocated to me was a group of 10 recruits from the training centre.... Included in the group was Gary Sheehan. I was very surprised and delighted to meet Gary that day. I knew Gary for along number of years - in fact I'd interviewed him when he applied to join the Gardaí - he was a neighbour for a number of years and played football with my own children. A lovely lad."
Seamus O'Hanlon from Carrickmacross
(Retired Garda & friend / neighbour of Gary Sheehan)

So for days hundreds of men - both Gardaí & Garda Recruits, backed up by the Army, systematically searched the rough terrain in the wintry hills around Ballinamore.

On the 16th December Insp. Séamus O'Hanlon's group recommenced the painstaking search after lunch in Drumcromin wood, near Derrada a few miles north of the town.

"We entered the wood at approx 2pm. After about 20mins somebody shouted " a man with a cape" or "there's a man here" and with that shots were fired, a bomb blast went off and then there was a sustained burst of gunfire..." Retired Garda - Seamus O'Hanlon

They had stumbled onto the kidnappers hideout in an almost impenetrable thicket where visibility was virtually impossible - what followed was a confusing and chaotic gunfight. The kidnappers, taking advantage of the element of surprise, fired on the searchers and made good their escape in the confusion - taking several Gardaí and army personnel hostage along the way. Don Tidey managed to free himself from the kidnappers in the chaos and was found by the Garda. But it soon became clear that there were casualties and follow-up searches of the scene revealed the bodies of Garda Recruit Gary Sheehan and Private Patrick Kelly. Shot dead within metres of the camoflaged black plastic covered hideout.

As the news broke - the joy at the release of Tidey was tempered by the tragedy of the loss of two men. The search operation was intensified around Ballinamore to find the killers and quickly it became an inter-national news story. Headlines spoke of a "Ring of Steel" and that it was the biggest security operation in the history of the state, however it soon became apparent that the killers of Sheehan & Kelly had gotten clean away.

"The so called "ring of steel", of course, turned out not to be a ring of steel at all. It was more like a rubber band which was stretched around a very complex area. I am not sure why the Gardaí and the Govt of the day allowed it to go on for so long this reporting of the "ring of steel"..."2000 Gardaí".....".the biggest operation in the history of the state" ...and this is the way it was reported.
Brendan O'Brien - Reporter with Today Tonight in 1983

As the two men were buried - Private Patrick Kelly in Co.West Meath and Garda Recruit Gary Sheehan in Carrickmacross the nation stood in stunned silence. But a time of mourning was not the right time for asking the hard questions that would be for later.

"The Gardaí got their man out alive - which was very important and was a triumph because it was very possible that the Provo kidnappers would have shot him dead in certain circumstances. But having had the number of men they had in the territory and having found the hideaway up front face to face... that they were unable to contain them at that point or from that point on was undoubtedly a failure and I think they would admit that it was a failure."
Brendan O'Brien - Reporter with Today Tonight in 1983

25 years on from the tragic events at Drumcromin Wood near Derada - after 10 years of legal wrangling Brendan "Bik" McFarlane was acquited of charges in relation to the kidnapping. Nobody has ever been held to account for the murders.

Reporter: Margaret Martin
Series Producer & Directed by Kevin Cummins

Garda checkpoint Ballinamore Co Leitrim © The Irish Times
Garda checkpoint Ballinamore Co Leitrim © The Irish Times
Army called in to aid search for Don Tidey © The Irish Times
Army called in to aid search for Don Tidey © The Irish Times
Army reinforcements © The Irish Times
Army reinforcements © The Irish Times
The bodies of Recruit Garda Sheehan and Private Kelly being removed from the scene near Derrada, Ballinamore Co Leitrim © The Irish Times
The bodies of Recruit Garda Sheehan and Private Kelly being removed from the scene near Derrada, Ballinamore Co Leitrim © The Irish Times