Sunday 18 March 2018

Government must do much more to safeguard Veronica's legacy

Crime reporter Veronica Guerin was a thorn in the side of gangland figures. Photo: David Conachy/INM
Crime reporter Veronica Guerin was a thorn in the side of gangland figures. Photo: David Conachy/INM
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

No other crime has provoked the level of public outrage as the brutal murder of Veronica Guerin 20 years ago this week.

The courageous Sunday Independent journalist was gunned down on the orders of drugs baron John Gilligan on June 26, 1996 while stopped at traffic lights on the Naas dual carriageway.

It truly was a watershed moment in Irish public life. Many people can still remember where they were when they heard the news.

Veronica had made her name as a fearless chronicler of the Irish underworld, and the revulsion at her death was unprecedented.

The events of that day were not just a brutal and callous murder but an attack on society and democracy. Within a week the Government had enacted two important pieces of legislation, leading to the setting up of the Criminal Assets Bureau.

The new agency had the powers to seize cash, properties, cars and other assets in situations where there was no legitimate explanation as to how they had been acquired.

It meant gardaí did not have to wait for a conviction to seize ill gotten gains, as is the case in most European countries.

In the following years the CAB proved highly successful, forcing many high-profile criminals into fleeing abroad.

Targets included Gerry 'The Monk' Hutch, the alleged mastermind behind a number lucrative heists, who made a settlement of IR£1.2m settlement with CAB in 1999.

The success of CAB was a fitting legacy to the murdered journalist, but two decades on, that legacy is in peril. While CAB has proved hugely disruptive to organised crime, this in itself has not been sufficient to dismantle criminal organisations, something which can only be done through convictions.

Such organisations routinely use murder and violence to dissuade anyone, including their own members, from giving the evidence necessary.

Indeed the gangland scene Veronica reported on pales in the shadow of the ultra-violent landscape gardaí must now confront.

As Veronica's husband, Graham Turley, recently told a television documentary, his wife's legacy has been "scattered a bit".

"Twenty years down the road we are back to stage one," he said.

"It is getting to the stage where there is literally a shooting on the streets every day of the week."

As well as the increased in bloodshed, the criminal fraternity has significantly evolved in response to CAB. Ways have been found to escape the clutches of the agency and the biggest drug barons now operate with apparent impunity on the continent.

The current feud in Dublin involving the Kinahan and Hutch families, which has claimed seven lives to date, encapsulates the challenges faced by our law enforcement agencies.

Christy Kinahan, the 'Dapper Don', is considered the largest wholesaler of drugs to the Irish market. However, he is largely outside the reach of CAB as he lives in Spain and the agency cannot confiscate his assets there.

A major investigation involving several European police forces, code-named Operation Shovel, led to the identification of €150m in assets linked to the Kinahan cartel. While these assets were frozen, charges against Kinahan and his associates did not follow.

The reasons for this are unclear, but it has been suggested Spanish authorities have prioritised the pursuit of larger international mafia gangs based there.

Kinahan has also been linked to a string of legitimate businesses, a ploy increasingly used by criminals to muddy the waters, making it more difficult for police to uncover where the legitimate money ends and the dirty money begins.

Kinahan's organisation sparked the current feud with the murder of Gary Hutch, who they suspected of being a police informer. Even with dozens of armed police deployed at checkpoints in Dublin's inner city, the Kinahan organisation has been able to direct further murders from abroad. The feud has provided evidence that even lower level gang members have also become adept at concealing wealth.

Kinahan's associates let their guard slip somewhat at the funeral of feud victim David Byrne, where there was an obvious display of wealth, including a fleet of limousines, a funeral casket with a reputed cost of €15,000 and, reportedly, a €25,000 bar bill.

A series of CAB raids prompted by the scenes at the funeral led to the seizure of luxury cars, motorcycles, jewellery and Rolex watches.

In the wake of the feuding new laws have been proposed by the Government to give gardaí powers to seize more assets. Detectives will also be able to engage in more electronic surveillance.

But a whole lot more is needed if Veronica's legacy is to be safeguarded.

Indeed, the key to bringing down the untouchables flooding Ireland with drugs may now lie in a concerted international effort.

If the likes of the Kinahans are not considered a top priority by Continental police forces then our politicians and the gardaí must convince their counterparts that they should be treated as such.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News