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How the gangsters can get away with murder

THE number of unsolved gangland killings in Dublin since the murder of Veronica Guerin is about to reach 50 amid growing concern that organised crime violence is once again out of control.

In business, it is said that the building of a hugely expensive corporate headquarters away from the core money-making operation is the first major sign of an impending financial collapse. The same could be said of crime.

In the mid-1990s, Irish drug traffickers and gangsters began to get too big for their boots. They believed they were untouchable, and that the gardai hadn't a hope in hell of catching them as they moved into the millionaire league, rubbing shoulders with the rest of the country's wealthy at race meetings and at fancy holiday resorts in Spain and the Caribbean. They had good reason for thinking this way.

John Gilligan, after his release from Portlaoise Prison in 1994 on minor robbery and handling charges, lived this life. The videos are there to show it. John waving at the camera from the sun-kissed shoreline of St Lucia; goofing on the ski slopes in the Pyrenees; en famille at the equestrian centre and bungalow at Jessbrook.

He and the half dozen other major gangsters in charge of organised crime in Dublin at the time had reason to be content with their station. The Garda Siochana were showing themselves incapable of counteracting organised crime.

The demise of Gilligan and his associates resulted from their own personal judgement that they were immune from the law and that they could kill who ever they liked, including a journalist. They reached this point of view based on the evidence they had before them. Apart from the riches they were gathering, they could confidently note that of 12 gangland murders in Dublin over the previous two years, none had led to a Garda prosecution.

Starting with the gang's own murder of Martin Cahill in August 1994, there followed a series of killings, including those of Patrick Shanahan, October 1994; David Weafer, June 1995; Fran Preston, June 1995; Gerard Connolly, August 1995; Eric Shorthall, November 1995; Eddie McCabe and Catherine Brennan, November 1995; Christopher Delaney, November 1995; Christopher Lee, March 1996; John Reddan, April 1996; and John Kelly, April 1996.

By early 1996, experienced detectives in Dublin were already predicting that the gangs would move up a step - maybe, they thought, murder one of the detectives themselves. They targeted and killed Veronica Guerin because she, more than gardai, lawyers or the Government, was a greater threat. The gang had reasoned - again based on past experience - that there would be an outcry for a week or two and it would all die down and they could go back to their merry ways.

Public outrage spurred the politicians and gardai into the action that broke Gilligan's gang and introduced the Proceeds of Crime Act and the Criminal Assets Bureau which this year will probably surpass the ?100m mark in assets seized on behalf of the State. CAB has been such a success that it has been copied by the UK government. However, its actions are always complicated and persistently challenged in court over procedural detail which can frustrate its work.

It took considerable resources and a great deal of personal conviction on the part of detectives to bring down the Gilligan gang.

However, the experience of the other Dublin detectives charged with investigating gangland murders since then is quite different. One officer, who has personally investigated six killings relating to one single gangland feud over the past three years, says that the investigations effectively lasted a few days. The team set up to investigate the killing in the feud was disbanded after three days and the file left in the hands of two local officers who also have to contend with all other serious crime in their district on a daily basis.

The list of unsolved killings in Dublin since Veronica's murder shows the trend is definitely increasing. Michael Brady was shot dead as he drove into an apartment complex on the Liffey Quays in September 1996, and the IRA killed the Finglas drug dealer PJ Judge in December 1996. Since then, the list includes: Timothy Rattigan, June 1997; Eamon O'Reilly, January 1998; Thomas Lockhard, April 1998; Sinead Kelly, June 1998; Tony Beatty, December 1997; Gerard Moran, November 1998; John Dillon, January 1999; Pascal Boland, January 1999; Thomas Reilly, April 1999; Kevin Fennell, June 1999; Noel Heffernan, August 1999; Patrick Campbell, October 1999; Joseph Vickers, November 1999; Darren Carey and Patrick Murphy, New Year 2000; Joseph Foran, February 2000; Patrick Neville, April 2000; Thomas Byrne, April 2000; Francis Fitzgerald, November 2000; Cairan Smyth, February 2001; Seamus Hogan, July 2001; Declan Gavin, August 2001; Richard Fitzgerald, November 2001; Simon Doyle, December 2001; Patrick Lawlor, January 2002; David McGreevey, February 2001; Niall Hanlon, February 2002; Maurice Ward, April 2002; Derek Lodge, May 2002; Douglas McManus, June 2002; Joseph Rattigan, July 2002; Stephen Byrne, November 2002; Niall Mulvihill, January 2003; Raymond Salinger, January 2003; Charles Merriman, March 2003; Declan Griffin, April 2003; Paul Ryan, April 2003; Michael Scott, April 2003; William O'Regan, June 2003; Ronnie Draper, June 2003.

In none of these cases has a successful prosecution taken place. Gardai in Limerick, where the interminable feuds between local criminal dynasties have continued unabated, have had more success but they, too, seem incapable of bringing the violence to an end.

Last week three others, David McGuinness and Victor Murphy in Dublin and John Ryan in Limerick, joined the list.

The statistics do not support the assertion of Junior Justice Minister Willie O'De on RTE's Prime Time on Thursday night that the record of the gardai in this regard has been "absolutely outstanding". Gardai themselves feel that the growing rate of murder augurs badly for the future.

They see criminal gangs again asserting growing influence, bringing more and more drugs into the country, muscling in on the "security" business and avoiding detection by CAB by salting money away through land deals and semi-legitimate front businesses.

Testimony to the drop in prosecutions of serious criminals is evident in the courts. One officer attending the appeal by John Gilligan in the High Court last week observed that in past years, when standing around the Round Hall in the Four Courts, he would always encounter other Dublin detectives involved in serious cases. Last week, there were no other murder or serious crime cases before the High Court. There were no detectives waiting for cases to begin against any of the people involved in organised crime and gangland murders.

Several detectives see the current approach to gangland killing as one of pure financial expediency. There are not enough resources or will to tackle the problem, they say. No Garda manager is prepared to commit the type of resources and overtime needed for systematic investigation of these cases. Another said that it suits the authorities to allow these killings to go on. After all, they are only criminals killing criminals. With no prosecutions, the Government makes huge savings in Garda overtime and expenses and there are no hugely expensive legal costs at the end of the day when the cases are brought to trial.

The line trotted out by the gardai and the Government at the time was that all these investigations were "ongoing". "The file is still open" and gardai were determined to bring the killers to justice. "Significant progress" was being made in one or two cases, it was claimed. Similar words were used in 1996.

The new dawn that was supposed to have followed in the wake of Veronica's murder has fizzled out. The reality is that, in the way nature abhors a vacuum, there will always be people to fill the spaces left when one gang, like Gilligan's, is eliminated. The new breed is less flamboyant, stays close to sources of business and don't invest profits in assets that can be seized. Cash is carried out of the State or is loaned to finance business deals. There are at least 17 significant gangs operating in drugs and organised crime in Dublin, and all are doing very well.

While gardai have seized drugs with a street value of around ?60m so far this year, this is merely indicative of the fact that more drugs than ever before are entering the State. In fact, if the United States' Drug Enforcement Agency's traditional estimate that only 10 per cent of smuggled drugs are ever intercepted is applied to this ?60m figure, it would suggest that ?600m worth of drugs, at street prices, are coming into the country every year. With money like that up for grabs, no one should expect criminals to sit on their hands.