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Thursday 27 October 2016

Veronica may now be a saint, but she was no angel

Confident, fearless and sometimes infuriating, Veronica brought a refreshing energy to a team of forceful journalists who courted controversy, writes Shane Ross

Shane Ross

Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30

Today in the same Dublin streets trodden by Veronica Guerin, murder remains a cavalier by-product of the same drugs game
Today in the same Dublin streets trodden by Veronica Guerin, murder remains a cavalier by-product of the same drugs game

The murder of young, crusading women provokes a particular revulsion. Twenty years ago in Ireland the victim was journalist Veronica Guerin. Last week in England it was Labour MP Jo Cox. Veronica left an only child, Jo two children.

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After their deaths, both women's shocked nations went into a spontaneous period of mourning, worthy of a head of state. In Ireland the political reaction was dramatic, the law was changed within weeks. In the UK, frenetic political activity has been temporarily suspended out of respect for the murdered mother.

I worked with Veronica in the Sunday Independent at the time of her death in 1996. I did not know her well, partly because I was a relatively new business editor, but more probably because she was out of the office on missions for much of the time.

Veronica was part of a particularly forceful Sunday Independent team of self starters in the 1990s. Working under the brilliant and highly volatile editor, Aengus Fanning, she blossomed. Aengus encouraged us all to develop our own individual agendas, to pursue progressive causes and - in Veronica's case - to unmask criminals. The result was a newspaper bubbling with friction, plenty of rows, but buckets full of energy.

It had a dynamic which courted controversy. Sometimes we were accused of overstepping the normal lines of independent journalism. Veronica was part of an eclectic team that included Eamon Dunphy, Gene Kerrigan, Anne Harris, Brendan Keenan and Terry Keane.

Rivals accusingly pointed the finger at the Sunday Independent's ethos of the time. They undermined the journalists' integrity by saying we were "players" not commentators, that we had offended the demands of impartiality, that we were biased and opinionated.

They pilloried the Sunday Independent, insisting that it gave no quarter, that it pursued unproven wrongdoers with a vigour not allowed in other newspapers and that it made no effort at balance. It had an agenda. And thank God it did.

Veronica herself had an agenda. She wanted to use the pages of the paper to put an end to the scourge of drugs. Fanning was equally dedicated to ending violence, whether it was from the IRA or the criminal gangs. The newspaper opposed terrorism as fiercely as Veronica exposed drug barons. It was unequivocal. No balance was given to the voices of those who advocated murder. No apology was offered.

I remember Veronica, mysteriously called into a Sunday Independent Business editorial meeting, laying down the law to all us boring business hacks about how the section should look. She was adamant about the direction which it ought to follow. Her words fell on deaf ears. She infuriated Fanning and me with her brazen confidence, partly because she was right. She was never asked again. But it was vintage Veronica, fearless, confident and refreshing.

Of course Veronica may now be a saint, but she was no angel. We all knew that she had worked for a rogue, Taoiseach Charles Haughey, before she devoted herself to journalism. Her time with Fianna Fail gave her enviable contacts in the political world. She used them to secure garda journalistic sources in her quest for justice for victims of gangland crimes.

Despite her willingness to place herself in danger, her death was greeted with disbelief. There had been earlier threats to her life, but no one believed that they were any more than warnings.

Everyone has their Veronica Guerin moment. I remember the day of her murder like I remember the death of JFK. A former Fianna Fail senator, Tom Fitzgerald, greeted me with the news in Dublin's Molesworth Street. I just happened to be heading for the home of Sunday Independent proprietor Tony O'Reilly that evening to meet one of the Independent's international editorial boards.

The atmosphere on that night was without parallel. Grown men from the global media world did not weep. Instead they were paralysed. One of their own staff, a woman with a child, had been gunned down for a noble cause.

Twenty years on, a search for Veronica's legacy hardly unearths a victorious posthumous narrative. Today in the same Dublin streets trodden by Veronica, murder remains a cavalier by-product of the same drugs game.

Today different innocents are being slaughtered. This time they are being executed, not for being a journalist in hot pursuit, but for being the father, brother, uncle, son or even innocent neighbour of a rival drug gang leader. Children are again being left without parents at the whim of forces of darkness .

Last week in the Dail we renewed the law allowing the Special Criminal Court to try criminal gangsters. The Court was originally established to combat the IRA.

Today its prolonged life is a reflection of where the main threat to society now lies. It has moved from paramilitary ambitions to overthrow the state into the world of drug barons plundering and murdering with impunity.

Despite the energetic efforts of the forces of the state, of the Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan, of the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and the ordinary gardai, we are unable to prevent the barbarity that lurks on our streets.

We could do with a few more Veronicas.

Shane Ross is Minister for Transport

Sunday Independent

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