Saturday 16 December 2017

Paul Williams: Gilligan lords it over us as State fails Veronica

The man responsible for the journalist's murder is back without challenge in the home that's cost taxpayers €20m in legal fees, writes Paul Williams

John Gilligan is photographed near Jessbrook in Co Meath

Paul Williams

Coming face-to-face with former crime boss, drug trafficker and murderer John Gilligan was a totally unexpected encounter - and it wasn't in the script.

I was back, for the first time in many years, at Jessbrook, the world-class equestrian centre in Co Kildare that the diminutive criminal built in the early 1990s while he was on the dole.

Standing there in the middle of the impressive edifice that has remained unused for two decades was an emotional experience because the structure is a permanent reminder as to why Veronica Guerin was gunned down without mercy on June 26, 1996.

I had been there with my producer on a reconnaissance mission in preparation for the closing sequence of a new TV3 documentary series, State of Fear.

I decided to have a look at what was Gilligan's former home adjoining the centre, the house where he beat Veronica when she challenged him to answer questions in 1995.

Having being warned by our lawyers not to trespass on the grounds of the house, I began filming with a phone - and that was when I spotted a figure walking on the other side of the treeline.

Gilligan was kitted out in rain gear and carrying shears on his way to cut bushes.

And there he was in front of me, still here after 20 years, proving that nothing has actually changed.

I lost it to a degree and marched towards him.

I shouted: "I have always wanted to meet you again, you scumbag. What are you doing back here?"

The words came out before I had the chance to think.

Gilligan said nothing and turned his back to walk away. I shouted to him to come back and assured him I didn't have a gun.

The story begins and ends here: Gilligan built Jessbrook on a foundation of blood and drug money and it will forever remain as a monument to a gangster's hubris.

First let us remind ourselves of what happened all those years ago, before comparing it to the gangland murder madness that we have come to accept as the norm today.

When Gilligan was released from prison in 1993, he had decided on a major career change: swapping robbery for the much more lucrative - and less risky - business of drugs.

And he vowed never to serve another day inside.

Within months, "Factory John" and his associates were raking in the cash and on the way to becoming the most dangerous and powerful criminal gang we had yet seen in this country.

They developed a highly organised industrial-scale operation that ran like clockwork and turned over millions of pounds under the noses of the State authorities.

Gilligan employed a small army of workers and gangsters to run the business and killed anyone who got in the way or considered turning police informant.

He pumped the drugs cash into Jessbrook, his vanity project, which he and his wife Geraldine wanted to establish as one of Europe's biggest indoor equestrian arenas.

The plan was that it would buy them respectability.

Perhaps it is hard to countenance now but at the time he was completely untouchable.

Despite being officially unemployed, he could apparently do what he liked - drug money and his penchant for intimidation and violence were all he needed.

He had a pretty straightforward, no-nonsense approach when he went about acquiring additional lands from local landowners: they either agreed to sell their fields or faced the consequences.

He issued some with a classic Godfather ultimatum: an offer they could not, or dared not, refuse.

The State was powerless to do anything about it and Gilligan knew it.

When the taxmen came calling, he told them where to go and they never came back.

He also threatened social welfare inspectors when they began to investigate State handouts to his children. They left him alone after that.

There were no laws to put a stop to his gallop, which is where Veronica Guerin came into the cross hairs.

One day in September 1995, she drove down to Gilligan's ranch armed only with her journalistic curiosity and one question: "Where did you get the money for all this while on the dole, John?"

The criminal godfather hardly gave her time to finish her question before he launched his terrifying physical attack.

Incandescent with rage at her temerity, Gilligan savagely beat Veronica and threatened to kill her and her entire family.

She later described the incident as being more terrifying than the time, several months earlier, when a gunman shot her in the leg.

Gilligan was charged with assault and was facing definite jail time, but he was determined he would not go back behind bars.

And so, as we all know now, he had Veronica murdered on June 26, 1996.

It was the chilling moment of realisation that organised crime had been allowed to take root - and that the godfathers were prepared to cross the Rubicon if they deemed it necessary. If a journalist could be assassinated, then so too could a politician, a judge, or a senior garda. This was narco-terrorism.

The reaction from the State was resolute and welcome. A raft of powerful new laws were introduced which culminated in the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB).

The first major target of this unprecedented law-enforcement agency was Gilligan and his cherished equestrian centre.

But for the past 20 years, most of which he spent behind bars, Gilligan has played ducks and drakes with the Irish legal system as he challenged the CAB every step of the way.

His myriad legal manoeuvres have cost the taxpayer an estimated €20m, including free legal aid. That in itself is an insult to the thousands of citizens who have been dumped out of their houses because they fell behind on their mortgages through no fault of their own.

They cannot avail of free legal aid or stall the eviction process for two decades.

And that brings us back to the encounter with Gilligan on a cold, wet winter's day a few weeks ago.

There he was, pottering around the grounds of his country residence like he owned the place, and no one in authority has lifted a finger to do anything about it.

Gardai have not even bothered to search the place or let him know they haven't forgotten him.

Gilligan has been back living in the house with his wife - who claims that they are separated - for several months while his latest Supreme Court challenge against the CAB's seizure of his property is pondered by judges.

A decent, law-abiding businessman bought the actual equestrian centre but it remains closed such is the fear of Gilligan's presence in the area.

To think that this thug is now effectively a tenant of the organisation set up to take away his ill-gotten gains makes an ass of our criminal justice system, our laws and political institutions.

But more distressing is that it represents a grotesque insult to the memory of a brave lady called Veronica Guerin.

State of Fear airs at 10pm on Monday and Tuesday on TV3

Sunday Independent

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