Sunday 17 December 2017

'I wasn't being heroic, I was standing up for bravest reporter I've known'

Veronica Guerin
Veronica Guerin


It was the phone call I never expected to get. Veronica Guerin had been roughed up early that morning at a place I'd never heard of, Jessbrook Stud, by a man I'd never heard of – John Gilligan.

They were two names that have remained imprinted on my brain.

When she arrived into the office Veronica was clearly in a state of shock, her clothes were torn and her arms badly bruised.

By that time I was in the office and a lawyer had arrived.

She didn't want to go to hospital, like most people in shock she was playing down her injuries. We persuaded her to go to the Mater for a check-up and I didn't talk to her until the Saturday morning as we were, as usual, preparing the front page of the paper.

As news editor, I rang Veronica at home and asked if she would write a front page account of her experiences. Veronica had never said 'No' before – but that morning she said she couldn't. In the intervening period she had consulted a solicitor, having decided to take a case against Gilligan, and the lawyer had told her her if she wrote a line about the attack on her the prosecution would fail.

I tried to change her mind. But that wasn't something you could do with Veronica once she had made a decision.

"There is nothing to stop you ringing Gilligan and asking him what happened" she suggested, helpfully.

By now I knew who Gilligan was, one of the most dangerous players in the Dublin underworld, a man making millions from smuggled cigarettes that were sold at the back of the old Independent office in Abbey Street, and from cannabis, the drug of choice of the middle classes.

I asked a reporter to make the phone call as I got on with my own job. When he came back across the room he was ashen faced, and shaken. Gilligan had told him if anything appeared in the paper he would find him, and find his family.

Still not realising how dangerous he was I told him to write it up, which he did, but giving me strict instructions that his by-line – his name – wasn't to appear on the story. I assured him it wouldn't.

Later at the editorial conference we felt, in solidarity with Veronica, somebody's name should go on the story.

In the end it was mine. I wasn't trying to be heroic, but just trying to stand up to a bully and support the bravest reporter I had ever worked with.

As the Gilligan story unfolded in the weeks that followed I often looked behind as I walked around Dublin, I was suddenly in dread of motor-bikes and cars slowing down near me.

Eventually the feeling went. And then one day as I was cycling along the Rock Road I got a phone call to say Veronica Guerin had been shot dead. It is another moment forever imprinted on my brain.

To this day I wonder what would have happened if I had been able to convince Veronica to write the story of her experience and the assault case against Gilligan had never gone ahead. But that is a question that will forever remain unanswered.

Sunday Independent

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