Ireland's Eliot Ness

He has been dubbed Ireland's Eliot Ness, after the legendary and incorruptible US gangbuster. And the work of Barry Galvin, the 53-year-old solicitor who heads Ireland's fight against millionaire drug dealers and the bosses of organised crime, is no less dangerous.

Because of the constant threats to his life, he has a round-the-clock police guard and is authorised to carry a gun. Special security systems have been installed at his home to protect his family. In court, his staff give evidence from behind screens because of fears of reprisals.

Galvin, a former Cork State Solicitor with a crusading touch, is the chief legal officer of Ireland's Criminal Assets Bureau, a new weapon in the country's armoury against serious crime. It was established three years ago by emergency legislation, following the murder of investigative journalist Veronica Guerin by a powerful drugs gang she was exposing. Guerin was shot dead in broad daylight as she sat in her car at traffic lights in Dublin, in a killing that sent shock waves through the Irish political and legal systems.

Galvin, a long-time outspoken critic of what he saw as the inadequacy of the state's response to the drug barons, was called in to provide the Bureau's legal muscle. He was being challenged, in effect, to translate his public criticism into action – and, despite having to confront some of the most ruthless operators in the twilight world of drugs, big money, violence and murder, he has embraced his task with undisguised enthusiasm.

The Bureau's role is to hit the crime bosses where it hurts – identifying assets such as property investments, cars, and bank and building society deposits it believes are the proceeds of crime, and winning court approval to seize them. Alternatively, borrowing from the strategy used to put Al Capone behind bars, the Bureau issues large tax demands against the wealthy drug dealers, insisting that they pay up or face the consequences.

The results have been dramatic. In just two years, the Bureau's squeeze on high-profile criminals has yielded millions of pounds in seized assets, and millions more are the subject of court proceedings.

According to the Bureau's last report, its tax demands in 1997 alone amounted to more than IR£5m, and the figure for last year will probably turn out to be much higher.

The Bureau has a hand-picked staff of 50, made up of legal experts and tax specialists, plus detectives. They are drawn from the Chief State Solicitor's Office, the Revenue Commissioners and elite Garda squads, but such is the personal risk involved in their work that, under the terms of the legislation, none of them can be publicly identified. Even when testifying in court, they are visible only to the judge, and publishing their names is an offence that carries a jail sentence.

Only two Bureau members may be named in public – Galvin and the Garda chief in charge of the Bureau, chief superintendent Fachtna Murphy. Given the publicity that surrounds the agency's work, that increases the pressures – and the dangers – for the two men and their families.

But Galvin, a father of three, remains undaunted. As the third generation of a distinguished Cork legal family, he has a strong commitment to public service – his father and grandfather before him also held the position of Cork State Solicitor. His salary at the Bureau is estimated at about IR£60,000 a year – far below what he could be earning if he had stayed with the family legal practice, now one of the top 10 in Cork.

Galvin first qualified as a barrister, then changed tack to become a solicitor. After a spell with his father, Patrick, in the family practice in Cork, he became Cork State Solicitor in the mid-1980s, and was soon making headlines.

Alarmed by the increasing number of drugs-related cases his office was dealing with, he began speaking out, castigating the government for what he saw as its failure to provide the resources needed to combat the traffickers. The rugged Cork coastline was an open invitation to drug smugglers, he warned, while the Customs service, which was expected to apprehend them, was being asked to do so without boats or mobile phones – and operating on a five-day working week.

In two memorable cases in Cork, he objected to the renewal of pub licences on the grounds that drugs were being distributed on the premises, and used the occasions to name the city's major dealers in court. The next day, the local papers published the names in their reports of the hearing.

Galvin became national news in the early 1990s, when he appeared as a special guest on Ireland's most-watched television programme, The Late Late Show, to outline his criticisms of the state's failure to confront the drugs crisis. He made the most of his national platform, spicing his detailed analysis with an entertaining story that was devastating in its implications.

He told how a party of Customs officers had set out from a harbour in west Cork to conduct a drugs search of a yacht that was moored suspiciously offshore. The officials had been forced to borrow a boat for the trip, because the service did not have one of its own. Suddenly, the borrowed craft sprung a leak, leaving them struggling in the water – and calling for help from the suspected smuggler. He was happy to come to their assistance – and to give them a lift back to shore.

The story provoked a storm of laughter – and underscored Galvin's message of how woefully equipped the state agencies were for the drugs battle. He then fired a broadside at the Revenue Commissioners, challenging them over their failure to investigate the wealth and lavish lifestyles of those the police believed to be involved in drugs trafficking.

Instead of investigating such "ill-gotten gains", he declared, the Revenue Commissioners preferred to concentrate on "business people and little old ladies in sweet shops". He offered his own plan for tackling the worsening drugs problem: the creation of a single enforcement agency, co-ordinating the efforts of the Garda, the Customs and the Revenue, which would take the fight to the criminals.

It might well have been a blueprint for the Criminal Assets Bureau with which he now works. But at the time, government ministers, furious over his much-publicised television criticisms, dismissed the idea, maintaining that the drugs crisis was not nearly as serious as he claimed.

Then came Guerin's murder, which provoked fear and outrage in the community, and transformed attitudes across the political landscape. Within weeks, the creation of a Criminal Assets Bureau was announced. It needed a high-powered lawyer. There was only one choice, according to Nora Owen, then Justice Minister, and that was Barry Galvin.

It was a choice that won public applause at a time when the state needed to be seen to be reasserting its authority over the kind of gangsters who had murdered Guerin.

Colleagues describe Galvin as a man of keen intellect, a highly efficient prosecutor, with a huge appetite for work. One calls him "a tough operator, with a very driven personality. Not a man to be trifled with". Another says: "Barry's attitude is that he will go to the end of the world if the cause is right."

Some of the criminals targeted by the Bureau are associated with the gang that organised and carried out Guerin's murder. But the agency has spread its net much wider than the drugs trade. One of those recently detained, carrying a case containing £300,000 in cash and cheques, was former Dublin city and county manager George Redmond, a central figure in a planning corruption inquiry now underway at Dublin Castle.

He was arrested on his return from the Isle of Man, where he had withdrawn the money from accounts that had not been declared to the tax authorities. The cash was seized by the Bureau and will be confiscated if investigations establish that it was amassed through corruption.

The agency, which is popular with both the public and politicians, has been remarkably successful in court, winning some 90 per cent of its cases, although many are still under appeal. The high success rate owes much to the energy and determination of Galvin, who, with the ability to seize assets, has finally been given the opportunity to fight organised crime with the weapons he wanted.

But some in the profession accuse him and the Bureau of cutting corners in the push to get results. It has been accused of not giving its targets sufficient time to pay their tax bills before beginning legal proceedings, while others claim that the wide-ranging powers granted to the agency are unconstitutional. A test case on that issue is shortly to be decided in the Irish High Court, although it seems inevitable that the argument will ultimately go to the European Court.

In the meantime, to the delight of the public, Galvin continues to make major inroads into the once-bulging bank balances of Ireland's criminal fraternity.