Friday 30 September 2016

We must always protect those with the courage to stand up to criminals

Frances Fitzgerald

Published 24/06/2016 | 02:30

'Veronica did not see any glamour in gangs. She saw them for what they were – people destroying local communities'.
'Veronica did not see any glamour in gangs. She saw them for what they were – people destroying local communities'.

Veronica Guerin changed Ireland. Before those shots rang out in Newlands Cross on a summer day in 1996, we knew we had gangs trading in drugs and destroying lives. But quite honestly, nobody was clear on how ruthless they would be when they felt under threat of being exposed.

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I suspect Veronica saw more than most how dangerous they had become. But she persisted in searching for the truth.

She told it. She died in service to the truth and in service to freedom of speech and belief.

In Ireland, we regard an attack on journalists as an attack on the State itself, and any attack will be met with the full wrath of the State, as happened in the aftermath of Veronica's death. The Government and members of An Garda Síochána recognised a line had been crossed and they didn't rest until justice had been done.

It is a simple fact that democracies cannot function, let alone flourish, without a free press.

Veronica's death hammered home to all of us that Ireland was part of a global pattern of gang crime.

The gardaí acted at the time. They continue to act, as demonstrated by the number of arrests made in recent weeks related to the current gangland feud. Government will provide all the resources, legislative or financial, to allow them to do so.

Veronica's death led to the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau and I am now in the course of strengthening its powers so it can go after the profits of gangs at all levels more effectively. It was the widespread revulsion at Veronica's death that led to the introduction of a regime for the seizure of profits from crime.

When she was alive, her keyboard hurt criminals and gangs. Her death hurt them too because it led to tens of millions of euro being taken out of their pockets and bank accounts.

Veronica did not see any glamour in gangs. She saw them for what they were - people destroying local communities.

She saw that when a gang member kills another, that's a headline and a horror.

But we must never forget the hidden body count, the far greater numbers who die every week of the year from drug abuse.

These deaths don't make headlines. They're harrowing and often brutally lonely. They're a devastating end to a chapter of great misery for families.

Those who die from the products peddled by these gangs don't have large numbers of limousines lined up for their final farewell. Their deaths don't carry the trappings of wealth. The price of the high-flying lives of gang members is death. Veronica knew that and it made her all the more determined to search for the truth and tell it.

On a number of occasions recently, I have met the communities in areas of Dublin that have suffered most because of the activities of gangs. The people there have seen many lives ruined because of the activities of drug gangs. They have responded with decency, dignity and courage, often in the face of great odds stacked against them.

The supply of drugs is a challenge to all western nations. We must and will unite across borders to fight this evil. Drug misuse is a public health issue. No one, except the gangs who profit from it, wants to see more lives ruined by drug abuse.

We must also fight the people within our own communities who buy drugs and who commit what they wrongly see as a victimless crime. They contribute to the destruction of their own towns, their own villages, their own communities, while believing they do no wrong.

Jineth Bedoya is a Colombian journalist who, when she was 26, was abducted, drugged and raped because of her work. I mention her, not just as an example of a courageous journalist who suffered in her quest for truth, but because of something she said:

"Courage is something that is very subjective. We can be courageous in certain circumstances and become real cowards in others. This is my life. I love what I do... There are millions who read my work. This is my contribution to society'.

It is hard to read those words without thinking of Veronica Guerin. She loved her work. She loved searching for the truth and telling it. If courage is grace under pressure, she had courage in spades.

Frances Fitzgerald is the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice

Irish Independent

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