Tuesday 22 October 2019

End of Innocence: Paul Williams on the birth of Irish organised crime

Gangland may feel like a modern phenomenon, but it was 50 years ago when it dawned on criminals that careful planning and heavy use of arms would make them more effective. The brutal history of Irish organised crime can be traced back to a summer of armed raids in 1969

No entry: a seven-year-old boy looks beyond the cordon after another gangland shooting in the north inner city of Dublin in 2017. Photo by Eamonn Farrell
No entry: a seven-year-old boy looks beyond the cordon after another gangland shooting in the north inner city of Dublin in 2017. Photo by Eamonn Farrell
Christy Dunne
Changing tack: John Gilligan specialised in warehouse robberies but moved into the drugs game
Robberies: Martin 'The General' Cahill was a protégé of Christy Dunne
Gangland terror: the Regency Hotel attack during the height of the Kinahan-Hutch feud
Streets of fear: armed garda from the Emergency Response Unit on patrol in the north inner city of Dublin
Paul Williams
Paul Williams

Paul Williams

In March 1969, following their most successful robbery yet, the country's first organised crime grouping - a motley gang of Republicans, Marxists, Trotskyites, anarchists and criminals - gave themselves the name Saor Éire or Free Ireland.

They were jubilant after eight members of the gang, dressed in full combat gear and carrying machine guns, invaded the Northern border town of Newry and robbed two banks. After exchanging gunfire with the RUC, they made their way back to the Republic with £22,000 - the biggest cash robbery ever recorded on either side of the Border at that time.

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The gang were to carry out another three robberies over subsequent months in Wicklow, Dublin and Meath in an alarming upsurge in serious crime.

On September 25, 1969 they took over the town of Kells, cutting phone lines and blocking approach roads before robbing the National Bank. They did the same a year later in the village of Rathdrum in Wicklow.

Streets of fear: armed garda from the Emergency Response Unit on patrol in the north inner city of Dublin
Streets of fear: armed garda from the Emergency Response Unit on patrol in the north inner city of Dublin

The nucleus of the grouping was four young men - Joe Dillon, Frank Keane, Martin Casey and Liam Walsh - who had left the IRA in the early 1960s in protest over its political direction and lack of military action.

Saor Éire had an estimated 60 members across the country with a hardcore of 20.

Fifty years later it may seem like the material from an unused sketch in an episode of Father Ted, but the fact is that Ireland's first professional crime gang sought legitimacy by styling themselves on the iconic South American rebel leader Che Guevara. They rationalised their well-planned armed robberies not as crimes but military actions in a new socialist revolution with the proceeds used to finance a movement that would encourage workers and farmers to rise up against the State.

In a statement issued to The Irish Times, the gang pushed a quasi-political agenda when they claimed responsibility for the Kells robbery. Dubbing themselves the Saor Éire Action Group, they claimed that the proceeds of the robbery would be "used to finance a movement which will strive for a workers' republic".

There was never any evidence that the working classes benefited from Saor Éire's efforts: most of the robberies were "half-and-half operations" - half the proceeds went to the 'cause' and the other into the pockets of those who carried them out.

Still, Saor Éire played a pivotal role in the evolution of organised crime and terrorism. It was a well-organised, heavily armed and highly motivated gang that pulled off heists with meticulous planning and efficiency; firing shots in the air to prevent heroics and making off with the cash in under four minutes.

Gangland terror: the Regency Hotel attack during the height of the Kinahan-Hutch feud
Gangland terror: the Regency Hotel attack during the height of the Kinahan-Hutch feud

The group set an example for scores of other would-be blaggers (armed robbers) including terrorists and criminals alike, by showing them how easy it was to rob banks and not get caught. They exposed how ill-equipped the police and the justice system were to deal with this new phenomenon of serious crime.

As their notoriety - and audacity - increased with each robbery, Saor Éire attracted the attention of a generation of disaffected young men who would eventually become household names for all the wrong reasons.

Youngsters like Christy 'Bronco' Dunne, who headed up the first Irish family to become synonymous with the drug trade, were attracted by the anarchic rhetoric, the promise of excitement and the lure of easy money.

Dunne was the eldest of a large family who grew up in abject poverty in Crumlin. Many of them had, like many of the other major players who were to become household names, been incarcerated in the brutal industrial and reformatory school system.

To make matters more complicated, the political situation was headed towards chaos in the summer of 1969 when the cauldron that was Northern Ireland finally boiled over with the Battle of the Bogside in Derry and widespread sectarian attacks on Catholics in Belfast as a unionist reaction to the nationalist people seeking civil rights.

Refugees fled to the Republic as the violence intensified and hundreds of families were burned out of their homes.

Christy Dunne was a colourful character who came to epitomise the peculiar circumstances of the Ireland of 1969 when organised crime and future terrorists took hold thanks to an unholy alliance with the political establishment.

In 1969, Dunne organised the delivery of at least 35 handguns to Saor Éire which he had stolen from the Parker-Hale munitions factory in Birmingham through a contact.

Many years later, in the 1990s, a memo found in the Department of Justice revealed that intelligence had been received at the time that Jock Haughey, Charles Haughey's brother, had travelled to London with Saor Éire man Martin Casey in November of that year for the purpose of buying the consignment of guns which had been organised by Christy Dunne.

The document also named two government ministers, Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney, as funding the operation.

The 1970s

A year later, the two ministers were sacked after attempting to organise a major shipment of arms to the IRA as the Northern Troubles were erupting. In the same year, 1970, the gang's recklessness pushed them too far when they gunned down an unarmed garda, Dick Fallon, as he responded to a bank robbery on Arran Quay in Dublin.

Fallon was the first garda to be murdered in the line of duty since 1942 - and the first to become a victim of Ireland's new culture of violent crime. Over the next 15 years, another 11 garda and a soldier would also be gunned down as they tackled bank robbers, kidnappers and terrorists.

The murder of Garda Fallon ultimately led to the demise of Saor Éire but by then, gangland had been well and truly established. A new generation of young criminals had learned the importance of organising themselves into gangs which made it more difficult to be caught by the police.

Former members also brought their expertise into the ranks of the two new entities that emerged from a bitter split in the IRA in 1969: the Official IRA (Stickies) and the Provisional IRA (Provos). Among them were men who were destined to become major league drug dealers and gang bosses, including the likes of Eamon Kelly, Tommy Savage and Michael Weldon. By year's end, the two new IRAs started their own expropriations for the cause by robbing banks, post offices and payrolls - the era of the armed robber had arrived.

Ireland went from having the lowest crime rate in Europe at the end of the 1960s, to the region's fastest growing between 1970-71.

There were 18 robberies in Saor Éire's three-year reign. Between 1972 and 1978, that figure had rocketed to over 200 a year and the cumulative amount stolen increased 15-fold to £2.3m.

Every Thursday and Friday, businesses, banks and the gardaí braced themselves for another wave of hold-ups.

There were so many heists taking place that comedian Niall Tóibín developed a sketch for TV in which a newsreader character presented a robbery report in the form of the weather forecast. "Today there were robberies in Carlow, Athlone, Navan and Dublin. Tomorrow they will be in Kildare, Tipperary, Cork and Monaghan and next week…"

Leading the charge into this new world were Christy Dunne, his family and their criminal associates.

Dunne became a broker for gangs - setting up jobs, providing inside information on cash movements and renting out the firearms - for a percentage of the take. Business was booming.

The Dunnes acted as a lightning rod for the new generation of gangster. The so-called 'Dunne Academy' trained the likes of the now veteran John Cunningham, who in recent decades became the business partner of Christy Kinahan senior. They also introduced Martin Cahill and his family to armed crime - and in the process created one of the country's most infamous criminals, whose ability as a mastermind earned him the nickname, The General.

The Dunnes had extensive contacts with organised crime in the UK and it was through those contacts that Christy and his clan also began dealing in cannabis which was increasingly popular in the 1970s.

Then the brothers, particularly Larry and Shamie, branched out into heroin, introducing the drug to Ireland in 1979.

The 1980s

By the early 1980s, however, the Dunnes were a busted flush. Practically all of the brothers, including Christy, were behind bars, mostly for armed robbery, kidnapping and drug dealing. The men once seen as working-class heroes were reviled in the communities that had suffered the brunt of the unprecedented problem of drug addiction and related crime. When he was being sent away to prison for selling heroin, Larry Dunne famously shouted a warning to the protesters celebrating his misfortune outside the courthouse.

"If you think we were bad, wait until ya see what's comin' next."

It was to prove to be one of the most enduring prophesies ever uttered by an Irish criminal.

By the time the Dunnes had effectively self-destructed, a new generation of gangsters had established themselves: headed by Christy's protégé, Martin 'The General' Cahill.

Over two decades, Cahill organised the theft of art, jewels and cash worth well in excess of €60m in today's values. He controlled a large but intensely loyal gang of criminals mostly from his home turf of Crumlin, Drimnagh and Rathmines. They carried out robberies on an industrial scale.

His meticulously planned robberies included the theft of gold and jewels worth £1.5m from the O'Connors jewellery factory in 1983, which was then the largest robbery in the history of the State.

Three years later he topped that by robbing the Beit collection, one of the biggest art heists in the world. But unlike any criminal either before or since, Cahill deliberately took his fight to the State. While other criminals did everything to avoid antagonising the gardaí, Cahill spared no effort trying to humiliate them. He equipped his extensive arsenal of firearms by robbing the garda depot where confiscated weapons were stored and he stole the country's most sensitive crime files from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

When the law got too close for comfort, the General resorted to acts of chilling savagery. He bombed the country's top forensic scientist and shot a social welfare inspector, just because his dole payments had been cut. Cahill burned down two Dublin criminal courts in a bid to stop an armed robbery case being heard against him. He even dug up the greens on the garda golf club and later openly taunted them about getting a "hole in one in Stackstown".

But he got away with his crimes because the gardaí could not get the evidence to put him out of business.

Cahill was by no means the only player on a gangland stage that was becoming quite crowded.

An official garda intelligence report in 1988 identified the three biggest organised crime gangs then operating in Dublin.

Apart from Cahill's mob there were three other major criminals making their mark.

One of them was Gerard Hutch, known as The Monk, who in 1987 pulled off a £1.2m cash robbery from a security van on the city's northside. It set a new record.

Then there was John Gilligan, aka Factory John, who earned his title because his gang specialised in the wholesale robbery of warehouses around the country.

One of his main accomplices, who was also becoming a major player in his own right, was George Mitchell, aka, The Penguin.

Another new player on the block was Christy Kinahan who filled the void left by the Dunnes and controlled one of the largest heroin distribution networks then operating in Dublin. In 1987, he was jailed for six years after being caught with heroin worth about €300,000 in today's values.

But years later, officers admitted that at the time they hadn't fully appreciated the extent of his operation.

The 1990s

By the beginning of the 1990s a paradigm shift occurred in gangland as men like Gilligan and Mitchell swapped burglaries and hold-ups for the drug business.

The experience of the heroin scourge and evisceration of the Dunnes during the 1980s meant that many criminals still eschewed the drug trade, especially heroin.

But Ireland was changing and there was a burgeoning market for drugs, especially hashish, which most criminals did not have a moral difficulty with.

Another factor in the shift in emphasis was that during 1990, newly-formed, heavily armed specialist garda squads shot dead three well-known criminals, demonstrating to the mobs that armed robberies were no longer a safe source of income.

In 1994, Martin Cahill was shot dead by his old enemies in the IRA, which proved convenient for John Gilligan and his adviser, John Traynor. They had borrowed more than £500,000 from Cahill to buy their first shipments of hashish a year earlier and now with him out of the way, they didn't have to pay the debt.

Very quickly, Factory John began building a major empire and displayed his ill-gotten-gains to the world when he began developing a world-class equestrian centre near Enfield in Co Meath.

His new-found wealth, which the State did not have the powers or the will to investigate, also attracted the attention of former Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin which eventually led to her assassination.

It was a crime that, for the first time, universally outraged the country.

This was to be the first major wake-up call for the Irish State that organised crime had grown out of control and now posed a serious threat to society that was on a par with that of the IRA in the 1970s.

An unprecedented crackdown began and the Criminal Assets Bureau was established. It began taking money and property from the country's shocked criminal fraternity.

Those who had been living openly wealthy lifestyles fled the country, leaving a vacuum that opened a new chapter in the story of organised crime.

The 2000s

By 1999, a much more virulent younger breed of criminal began to emerge to supply the Celtic Tiger generation's love of cocaine.

They had the firepower and ability to murder anyone who got in the way of their business.

'Fat' Freddie Thompson, Stephen Sugg, Shane Coates, Brian Rattigan and Wayne Dundon became household names - synonymous with the sudden upsurge in gang warfare that has continued ever since.

Between 2000 and 2010 alone more than 150 people were murdered in circumstances categorised as gangland killings.

Most of the deaths came from the gang wars that blew up in Dublin and Limerick. There was the so-called Crumlin/Drimnagh feud which broke out in a row over drugs between Brian Rattigan on one side and Freddie Thompson on the other - that claimed at least 15 lives.

In Limerick, where the notorious Murder Inc gang led by the McCarthy/Dundons waged war on a whole city, the death toll over a 14-year period reached 25, including the murders of innocent men like Brian Fitzgerald, Shane Geoghegan and Roy Collins.

In 2016, the 20th anniversary of Veronica Guerin's murder, organised crime again showed that it was prepared to undermine society and bring terror to the streets.

The sheer audacity of the Regency Hotel attack which sparked the unprecedented - and unevenly matched - Kinahan-Hutch feud was the result of a row between the younger members of the gangs controlled by Christy Kinahan and Gerard Hutch.

While all the signs are that the worst is over and the feud may have fizzled out, it has to date claimed an estimated 18 lives.

There is a depressing theme to the story of modern organised crime gangs. A criminal who makes it to the top of the pile has a limited life expectancy and will inevitably at some stage find himself fighting for his life with competitors, former friends, or both.

These feuds usually end when the main protagonists are dead or in prison.

The phenomenon of gang violence is now spreading out of its traditional stomping grounds in Limerick and Dublin to smaller towns like Drogheda and Longford.

One thing is for sure: the legacy of Saor Éire lives on. Organised crime is now a fact of life.

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