Public intolerance must prevail in the war on criminals who don't give a damn
It's a lamentable state of affairs when you can't walk to the pub without fearing you'll wander into a massacre, writes Willie Kealy
The mistake we made back in the Nineties was to take too much comfort from the belief that we lived in a normal, civilised society. We looked at places such as Colombia and thought: "Thank Christ we don't live there, where human life is not only cheap, but has no value."
We did that despite the fact that journalists like Veronica Guerin in the Sunday Independent and Paul Williams in the Sunday World were reporting regularly on the cancer of organised crime that was thriving in our midst.
It was not until Veronica was murdered that we woke up to the fact that our society was blighted by a vicious cadre of criminals who saw themselves as unamenable to the law.
After Veronica was murdered, the politicians leaped into action and passed new laws. The criminals moved their operations abroad, and their enforced emigration allowed us to sink back into complacency. That was another big mistake.
Some of the criminals went to the UK, some to Holland, but most went to Spain. However, their multi-million euro business was still the same - supplying the Irish market with illegal drugs. And they did not grow rich just by keeping the zombie heroin junkies we see every day around the centre of Dublin supplied. They made - and make - money from the upwardly mobile consumers of 'recreational' drugs such as cocaine or the 'cool' customers for cannabis.
In the inner city of Dublin, where they mostly came from, they destroyed whole communities and recruited a vast network of 'soldiers', some before they were even out of school.
They have become a world-wide network stretching from South America to the Middle East and everywhere in between. It is a criminal empire they believe is worth defending. That means that the godfathers of crime are judge, jury and executioner in their own world. They kill anyone they think has informed or could bear witness against them or maybe just someone who owes them money. Skimming money off the top or losing a valuable shipment can also be a capital crime in this underworld.
In the 20 years since Veronica Guerin was murdered for doing her job, the death toll of gangland crime has risen steadily. It now stands at 200.
In the wake of the shooting dead of David Byrne in Dublin's Regency Hotel and the wounding of two other members of the Kinahan gang, Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan caused some hollow laughter in certain quarters when she spoke about a lack of garda intelligence. That was unfair.
Intelligence-gathering is the most difficult part of the job that gardai do, and it is the most essen- tial. It is not easy or very safe to infiltrate these gangs. Nor is it a simple matter to gain the confidence of those on the periphery: the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of those who have been executed; the parents of children who have been drawn into the drug world. There is a code of Omerta. It owes nothing to loyalty or honour. It is the silence of fear.
Journalists, too, must go about trying to get information that will enable them to let the public know what is really happening in society. Unlike gardai, they must do so without the power to arrest and question, or tap phones or search homes or business premises. But they must still produce evidence that will stand up in court - or pay a heavy financial price. Some could even face jail if they refuse to reveal their sources.
Any journalist will tell you that the reporters involved in this work are at the sharp end of the business. They are the ones who must work hardest, the ones who must be the smartest and the bravest.
There was hollow laughter, too, when Commissioner O'Sullivan said An Garda Siochana was adequately resourced and did not need any extra help in the fight against gangland crime. This time there was some justification for the cynic- al reaction. The commissioner is effectively a person appointed by the Government to run a government department, so she is not expected to come out publicly and state that she cannot do her job because those who appointed her are starving her of resources. It is a job that has a political dimension.
Throughout the past five years, garda stations have been closed, garda numbers reduced, resources in technology and transport and essential expertise allowed to seep away.
Yet the commissioner felt she had to defend the status quo. But this all happened in the middle of a general election. And the efforts to put a brave and loyal face on matters by the "best girl in the class" were not appreciated. Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald swiftly announced that the commissioner would have an additional €5m for overtime to bring an end to the chaos on the streets.
So Dublin's inner city was saturated with armed police, with checkpoints and flashing lights and yellow high-vis jackets. This looked pretty impressive, but it didn't stop some of the Kinahan gang, who had been the targets in the Regency Hotel attack, slipping into Poplar Row and killing Eddie Hutch, the uncle of Gary Hutch who had been killed in Spain by the Kinahans - for whom he worked - for being an alleged police informer. Eddie Hutch seems to have been killed for no other reason than his surname.
The ability of An Garda Siochana to deal with organised crime was demonstrated most recently when it brought to an end a 14-year reign of terror in Limerick by a gang led by the now jailed Dundon brothers. They did this through intelligence-gathering.
This episode has rightly been held up ever since as a shining example, but the Dundons were a small operation compared with what we are now facing on the streets of Dublin.
We have taken some comfort from knowing that the victims were mostly gangsters, killed in Spain. So once again we could become a bit complacent, and even enjoy their exploits when fictionalised in Love/Hate. Back in the Nineties, we could say: "We're not Colombia." Now we are glad that we don't live in Mexico.
But then we remember the totally innocent victims such as Anthony Campbell, a young appren- tice plumber who just happened to be working in a house when a gunman came to kill a crime lord who was hiding out there. Or Baiba Saulite, a young mother who had angered someone with the power to order her death. And down in Limerick, Roy Collins, whose family refused to yield to the Dundons' intimidation, paid the ultimate price. And Brian Fitzgerald, a doorman murdered for doing his job, while Shane Geoghegan just happened to look in the dark vaguely like the person a gunman was sent to kill.
The two journalists from Independent News & Media who had their lives threatened last week by members of the gangs involved in Dublin's latest fatal feud were not the first. Veronica Guerin and Paul Williams were aware that their investigations were not welcomed in some quarters. Veronica was murdered, but she had been resolute that she would not be intimidated.
Today, journalists are equally determined, but they cannot stand alone. The political will to tackle this very real threat to the authority of the State must be demonstrated, and not just because there is an election or when there is an election.
Support for our police force must be reinforced and continued until these evil gangsters are brought to justice. And we the people must maintain our outrage. This weekend, you have to wonder if you could go for a pint or a meal or just walk down certain streets and not find yourself in the middle of a massacre. We cannot tolerate that. And our intolerance must prevail.
No, we are not Mexico. But right now, that is only a matter of scale.