Maeve Sheehan: Murder of Keith Branigan is start of deadly chapter in Drogheda feud
After the gunfire, the community of Clogherhead returned to normality. The fishing village on the Louth coast has got a new RNLI lifeboat, purchased with a bequest from a Wexford farmer and local fundraising. Last Friday morning, the people gathered at the blue flag beach to bid farewell to Doris, the decommissioned craft.
Children from the local national school joined the gathering to sing her out, and at 3pm yesterday, they assembled at the same spot to welcome her €2.5m successor, which was named Michael O'Brien, in memory of an RNLI volunteer.
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It is a "sleepy wee village", said Tom Cunningham, the Sinn Fein councillor yesterday of the tightknit community of fishermen, seafarers and farmers and in the summertime, holidaymakers from a caravan park a block or two behind the beach.
It's the last place you would expect to be the scene of a gangland execution. At around 3pm last Tuesday, a red Lexus turned into the entrance to the Ashling holiday park and just by the Mace corner shop, a gunman got out, walked towards a man who was installing decking in front of a mobile home and opened fire.
Stray bullets ricocheted across the park. At least four or five people going about their business could have been hit, according to Cunningham.
"It was frightening. I was not there at the time, but I live three minutes' walk from it, my own children would walk past there all the time," he said.
Bullets tore through the rear windows of a car parked outside Mace by a woman who had fortunately taken her two children with her to the store. An eyewitness told reporters that returning to the car, "once they realised what was happening, the mother started screaming 'get the kids into the shop, quick'."
A pregnant woman threw herself on the ground.
Cunningham said two young women strolling towards the shop were "30 seconds away from walking into the gunman".
A second car was struck just above the petrol tank by another ricocheting bullet. The gunman recovered his aim to then pump five bullets into his victim, who was trapped, crouching on the decking, and had nowhere to hide.
The attackers fled in the Lexus that was later found burnt out in Dunleer, Co Louth and from there they escaped in a black Toyota Avensis, that was abandoned in the Clonmore estate in Ardee. Gardai are investigating whether they were hired hitmen.
The shooting was a turning point in the now infamous Drogheda feud, extending its suburban confines to bring terror to a sleepy fishing village and claiming its first murder victim in Keith Branigan.
He was 29 years old and married for a year. He had a criminal record dating back to his teens in Drogheda. His convictions included criminal damage, assault causing harm and burglary. He got a two-year jail sentence for elbowing a man in the face and leaving him with serious injuries. Branigan claimed he was "out of control" because he had lost his job as a plasterer.
But he stayed out of trouble for five years and in 2017, he got a job as a baggage handler in Dublin Airport. He didn't disclose his criminal convictions but when Garda vetting revealed them, he was dismissed.
Branigan was back on the streets of Drogheda and joined one of the crime gangs. As the feud escalated, Branigan came onto the Garda radar, driving gang members and running errands.
Gardai suspect he was selected for murder because he was an easy target.
It's a turf war, a senior officer said this weekend, with two criminal groupings fighting over drugs territory. The territory in dispute stretches beyond Drogheda, to towns in Meath and to north Dublin suburbs such as Balbriggan. But until last week's fatal shooting, the battle was played out in Drogheda, mostly in sprawling housing estates and surrounding areas.
The turning point was the shooting of a suspected kingpin at a halting site in the town in July last year. The kingpin survived the murder attempt but is now paralysed. Although no longer under armed guard, he has been receiving regular attention from gardai while his associates sought retribution that has transformed gang rivalry into a raging feud.
Since that shooting, the Garda's Operation Stratus has recorded 76 feud-related incidents: 14 robberies; 29 cases of criminal damage; 19 petrol bomb attacks; 14 robberies; one false imprisonment; four assaults; five threats to kill or cause harm; three attempted murders; and since last Tuesday, one murder. There have been many arrests and several people are being prosecuted.
The community is caught in the crossfire, with some entirely innocent families themselves becoming targets of extortion and violence.
Louth's Chief Superintendent, Christy Mangan, in an interview with the Sunday Independent late last year, explained why. He said both sides in this turf war had been coming under pressure from gardai, and the Criminal Assets Bureau had seized cars and cash.
Put the squeeze on the gangs, he said, and they will try to get their money back in other ways, calling in drugs debts from users further down the food chain, subjecting the parents of those people to extortion and threatening them with petrol bomb attacks unless they paid their children's drug debts.
Local politicians have highlighted numerous such cases. One family who spoke anonymously to this newspaper have described the terror of being petrol bombed and forced out their home a year ago after they failed to meet a dealer's deadline to pay their son's drug debt. Gardai had advised them not to succumb to extortion. Although the headlines moved on, the attacks continued. In May, local people and politicians took the streets of Drogheda to protest against the violence, with many calling for concerted action.
There are fewer than 50 criminals suspected of being involved on both sides of this feud, so why is it proving so hard to contain the violence?
Senior officers believe the murder of Keith Branigan is the start of a new and deadly chapter. Security sources we spoke to last week suggested that the same disruptive tactics that have worked in other criminal feuds will work in Louth: Garda attention and lots of it, on the minor street dealers and all the way up to the main players in this feud.
Gardai say they have enough resources. The Chief Superintendent cancelled all leave late last year.
Last week, Garda Superintendent Andy Watters sought to "reassure the people of Drogheda" in the wake of the murder, saying that "in the last two months we have received additional resources and continued support of regional and national armed units".
The Drogheda district was assigned 25 probationer gardai, increasing the presence of gardai on the ground. He said he is "satisfied" with the current levels of personnel and resources."
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris's radical plans to reorganise the force were launched late last month. The number of garda divisions is being cut from 28 to 19, which means that divisions will be larger.
The shake-up will see Louth merged with Cavan/Monaghan division. Each division has its own chief superintendent. Only one will survive the amalgamation of the two divisions. Both divisions have competing criminal crises - rising dissident activity in Monaghan pitched against the Drogheda feud.
The plan is aimed at handing back more power to local chief superintendents, which means that local divisions will in theory be better served. The Garda Commissioner is implementing the shake-up in the coming weeks.
The Drogheda feud will put it to test.