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One more killing and Limerick is murder capital of western Europe

THE hired gunman who killed 'Fat Frankie' Ryan last weekend has a deeply violent background. One of his very close associates was convicted three years ago of the brutal murder of an elderly farmer at his home in April 1998.

At the time, Fat Frankie Ryan's killer and William Campion, now serving life imprisonment, were marauding around Munster, breaking into isolated farm houses. Their reign of fear culminated in the murder of Patrick Sheahan, 68, who was beaten, his hands and legs tied with flex and then hung upside down from the banisters in his small farmhouse in Co Clare. He was left to die.

Gardai tracked down the gang, but were able to convict only Campion - whom they described as a vicious and evil young man. He came from the Moyross estate in Limerick which is being plagued by gangland violence. So, too, does his associate who is the main suspect in the murder of Fat Frankie last weekend.

Minister for Defence and TD for the area Willie O'Dea yesterday said the city was on the verge of yet another round of blood-letting between the rival Keane and McCarthy/Dundon gangs.

He appealed to the latest generation of gang members to stop. "Before these young men start, I would advise them to go and visit their relatives serving life imprisonment in Portlaoise and Mountjoy. Go and speak to them before doing anything.

"Limerick's gardai have an exceptional record for catching and securing convictions for murder - the best in the country. They have been outstandingly successful. I would advise these young men that they should acquaint themselves with what they face - either a bullet or jail."

Mr O'Dea said that despite its gangland violence and three other murders this year, the enclaves of drug gangs were also ruining Limerick's reputation.

"It gives a completely false impression of what life is like for 99.99 per cent of this city. It is garnering all this publicity which is a totally unfair reflection on Limerick," he said.

The minister is right to be concerned. According to gardai, the fact that there have only been four murders this year has arisen largely because of very good intelligence that has prevented some serious bloodshed.

At the start of the year, gardai intercepted two eastern European hitmen who had been hired in Britain to murder the head of one of the city's main drug gangs. This man, who has been at the centre of criminal activity in the city for a generation, has largely handed his criminal operations over to his sons and their associates. If he, as head of the family, had been murdered, there would have been instant and bloody revenge, gardai say.

Gardai, again acting on good information, intercepted an attack on a house party in Moyross earlier this year. The intention was to throw a grenade into the house and open fire with automatic weapons, possibly machine guns. Multiple deaths could have ensued.

As it is, the homicide level this year has been on the low side. Apart from Fat Frankie, two young men were murdered by members of the two main gangs, and another young man beaten to death in a killing that was personal rather than gang-related.

One of the two young men killed by gangs was Aidan Kelly, 19, who was lured to his death at a quiet country lane at Parteen where he was shot five times. The chief suspect was Fat Frankie, and it is possible that revenge for this murder might have been behind his killing.

The other young gang victim who was murdered was Richard 'Happy' Kelly, also 19, who disappeared on May 27. It is believed he was shot dead and buried secretly. A week before Fat Frankie's murder, gardai and soldiers were searching and digging up farmland on the outskirts of the city trying to recover his body. Happy Kelly's murder was the result of his obsession with stealing cars. He had convictions for stealing around 160 cars. One of the last he stole belonged to one of the Limerick gangs' chief "enforcers". There were guns and drugs in the boot. Kelly was ordered to leave the car back, and did so, intact. However, in merciless fashion, the gang then tracked him down and murdered him, ignoring his family's pleas to reveal the whereabouts of his grave.

The murder of Fat Frankie Ryan, himself a murderer, is believed to have been ordered by the head of the Keane gang, who is serving life imprisonment. The assassin had previously been part of the McCarthy/Dundon gang, but while in prison appears to have sided with the Keane faction. The assassin was released from prison earlier this year after serving a short sentence for a relatively minor offence.

Ryan's killer, who is in his 30s, was named in statements by James Martin Cahill, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to the murder of innocent Limerick doorman Brian Fitzgerald. Cahill named Fat Frankie Ryan's killer as the man who drove the motorcycle and brought him to Mr Fitzgerald's house to carry out the assassination.

HE also named a very wealthy Co Clare drug smuggler - the biggest in the west of Ireland - as the man who ordered Mr Fitzgerald's murder and who paid Cahill ?10,000. The Co Clare criminal is on the run and it is believed he may be in north Africa where he has contacts in the drugs trade.

Gardai now believe that when Fat Frankie's killer was released from prison, he seemingly sided with his old associate and other members of the McCarthy/Dundon gang. Ryan, it seems, trusted the man, who was sitting in Ryan's car when he shot him. The front-seat passenger, a young drug-runner, was arrested by gardai but isunderstood to have given a fabricated story about two gunmen on a motorbike which detectives were able to quickly dismiss.

Fears of renewed feuding were underlined when associates of his killers attacked mourners and attempted to force their way into the funeral home during the removal on Wednesday, and a large force of gardai had to be called to separate the two sides. At Thursday's funeral, Ryan's associates made it clear they were out for revenge, reading a poem to this effect over his coffin.

The fact that Fat Frankie was duped by his old associate has added a further degree of bitterness as his gang has been made to look stupid, something they will not tolerate, say garda sources.

After almost 10 years of feuding - since the former partners in crime broke up in a row over money - the two sides are well acquainted with each other's habits and movements. They are also equally heavily armed and usually wear body armour when moving around the city. The first attempt at revenge was a drive-by shooting on Tuesday night when shots were fired into a van in Ballyneety. Although the van was raked with gunfire, the two occupants escaped unhurt.

Despite Minister O'Dea's pleas - and his advice as to what will befall the latest generation of young gangsters - gardai fear that the "madness" that infects the Limerick gangs at times like this will, one way or another, lead to bloodletting. This weekend, gardai are on high alert, with very large amounts of extra resources poured into the city given that the weekend is the traditional time for drive-by shootings and attacks on homes.

But policing alone may not be enough to stop the violence in Limerick. Areas like Moyross, where the two young children were badly burned in the attack on their family car two weeks ago, are infected by all sorts of criminal activity. One of the threads of the investigation into the fire bombing of the car is that one of the local crime bosses instigated the attack as a way of forcing ordinary, decent people out of the estate so he and his cronies would have access to more houses and a greater sense of security.

Minister O'Dea has asked that Limerick Corporation look carefully at its housing policy, pointing out that an unusual number of gang members live cheek-by-jowl with each other - believing that living next door to each other affords them better protection from attack. While few people in the city are ready to admit it, ordinary working people are being squeezed out of their homes by gangsters bent on turning neighbourhoods like Moyross into their personal fiefdoms.

With a population of just around 100,000 (60,000 inside the town boundary and the remainder in suburbs) and an average of five gangland murders a year, Limerick is earning itself the unenviable reputation of having the highest rate of crime-related homicide in Europe.

Officially Glasgow has the highest homicide rate in western Europe with just under five homicides per hundred thousand of population. With one more murder this year, Limerick will pass out Glasgow and earn the unenviable title of western Europe's murder capital.