Monday 26 September 2016

We need a political truce to get gangland killers

Veronica Guerin died in vain as crime journalists are once again threatened, writes Shane Ross, who is urging political parties to unite

Shane Ross

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

ARMED GARDAI ON THE STREETS: Gardai on checkpoints in Crumlin yesterday. Photo: Mark Condren
ARMED GARDAI ON THE STREETS: Gardai on checkpoints in Crumlin yesterday. Photo: Mark Condren

It is nearly 20 years since I attended Veronica Guerin's funeral. Out at the Queen of Heaven Church near Dublin airport the shellshock was palpable. The loss of Veronica to her family and to us - her working colleagues - was devastating, but the loss to Ireland was deep, very deep. Journalists did not get murdered in Ireland.

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We are used to journalists being butchered in faraway countries like Iraq, Syria, Colombia and Guatemala. The barbaric warriors of Isil are involved in bloody, ritual executions. The victims are nearly always men. Veronica, a woman, carved out a special place for herself and for campaigning journalists in Irish mythology. She is, deservedly, the most revered Irish heroine of the last two decades.

Veronica was not only fearless in confronting criminals on her daily beat, she was equally headstrong in editorial conferences. I remember the late editor of the Sunday Independent, Aengus Fanning, sighing loudly - after he had illogically included Veronica, a crime reporter, in a business editorial meeting. Veronica had made a typically forthright contribution, causing him to raise his voice to insist that he was not going to tolerate her striding into his office and telling him how to run the business section. But that was vintage Veronica, passionate, definite, fearless of authority whether it came from her bosses in the Independent or from criminals. She had her own agenda. And the courage to pursue it.

Veronica Guerin died in vain. She was not the last Irish journalist to lose her life at the hands of drugs thugs. Five years later in 2001 Martin O'Hagan, a crime reporter at the Sunday World, was killed by loyalist drug dealers. Like Veronica, he knew too much about crime and was publishing it.

Did Veronica and Martin's deaths improve conditions for their successors? Last week we faced the horrific possibility that Ireland was facing a fresh wave of journalistic assassinations. News that the Gardai had advised two Independent News and Media employees that they were in danger suggested that little has changed. They were advised to move out of their homes.

Veronica perished because she was getting too close to the truth. Today's brave crime journalists are again revealing the depths of the depravity in Dublin's drug-infested world. They are coming ever nearer to exposing the activities of drug barons here and abroad. Journalists appear to know more than the Gardai. Criminals obviously fear them more than the forces of law and order. The sad conclusion must be drawn that Veronica's death and the outpouring of grief may have devastated a nation, but did not prompt the measures necessary to extinguish the drug dealers.

Countermeasures were taken in the wake of the death of Veronica; but the drug barons have simply become more efficient, keeping well ahead of the drugs posse. They have headed offshore. Gangland bosses are ordering murders in Ireland from the sanctuary of Spain. They employ savvy financial advisers who can show them how to hide their assets away from the eyes of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) or the global authorities. The money trail is now harder to uncover as the biggest culprits are not living in the jurisdiction. The Gardai's access to the bank accounts of Irish exiles, some now Spanish residents with money in tax havens, is far harder than grabbing the briefcases of cash carried by criminals was in Veronica's heyday.

Veronica's death was followed by a flurry of activity and legislation. The CAB was set up, but the criminality went on. It is hard not to conclude that the CAB has been a paper tiger, that the criminals are happy enough to pay up under pressure, but to continue on their merry way after surrendering only a small proportion of their drug- related gains.

What is the point of seizing the gangsters' assets if the gangsters themselves are still at large or rapidly replaced? It is depressing that no one has been arrested for the murder of either drug dealer David Byrne at a boxing tournament weigh-in, or of Eddie Hutch (uncle of drug dealer Gary Hutch) killed in retaliation last week. Intelligence seems non-existent. Perhaps we have developed an effective means of detecting and confiscating ill-gotten drug gains, but no way of nailing the criminals or preventing their crimes.

The decision to recall the Garda Emergency Response Unit (ERU) from the border area to the gangland battlefields of Dublin reflects the desperate straits in which we find ourselves. The ERU was sent to the border last year after the killing of Garda Tony Golden. Its focus has suddenly moved from paramilitary activities to drug criminals.

The move is a clear indication that the Gardai are fighting ultra-violent crime on two fronts. Suddenly Dublin's criminal gangster has taken the place of the paramilitary terrorist as target number one. Does this mean that dangerous subversives lurking in the border areas are now smiling, looking at a rosier future?

It is not clear if the ERU has returned to the capital permanently or merely for this week's funerals of Byrne and Hutch to prevent any accompanying outbreaks of violence. But surely combating gangland crime requires a totally different expertise to fighting terrorist activities in Louth? The question lingers: what skills does the ERU possess? The murderers are still at large, killing each other, at will and untouched. The message from the threats is that they now seem to regard reporters, not gardai, as their more dangerous enemies. Apparently journalists are better at gathering information than the forces of law and order.

The response from Independent News and Media to the threats has been characteristically robust, immediate and uncompromising. Group editor-in-chief Stephen Rae left no room for doubt: "Our media Group," he declared, "will not be deterred from serving the public interest and highlighting the threat to society at large posed by such criminals". The Irish Independent's cover on Friday, entitled 'Why we won't be intimidated', was defiant. The full page photograph of Veronica was powerful, almost a challenge to the killers. Today's crime journalists are carrying Veronica's torch even if they have not received the necessary back-up from successive governments.

Criminals should realise that journalists are made of stern stuff. Veronica Guerin was possibly reckless, but she was deeply driven. As her late mother Bernie said, she was massively moved by communities ravaged by drugs. She was determined to play a role in putting a stop to the savage killing and the destruction of whole communities in Dublin. Such noble stubbornness may have been difficult for her employers to control but was impossible for criminals to combat. Mobsters, motivated by greed, should realise that many of today's crime journalists are pursuing a mission to expose them. They are not motivated by money but by a vocation. They do not think of themselves as mere reporters, but as crusaders in pursuit of evil killers. They are in the front line.

Perhaps as election day nears, the fear of further killings of journalists should prompt a political truce on serious crime.

Could we not all agree a common programme to capture and jail evil people? We could bury our differences on this one issue, suspend our skirmishes and unite in opposition to the murderers.

The last week has been ugly, as politicians exploited the murders to hurl accusations at each other. Perhaps Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour, the Independents and others could come together to put the national interest first. Further emergency measures may be necessary to prevent another wave of killings and to honour the memory of Veronica Guerin. If we could do that she might not, after all, have died in vain.

Shane Ross is the Independent Alliance candidate in Dublin South

Sunday Independent

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