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Andrew Lynch: Let's hope Dermot Ahern watched Prime Time. If not, this country is in very serious trouble

Steve Collins is living in the shadow of a gunman. Ever since his son Roy was shot dead in Limerick 15 months ago, he and his loved ones have known that some of the most vicious gangland criminals in the city have put a price on his head.

Over the past few weeks, the Collins family allowed RTE's Prime Time to film them as they went about their daily lives -- and the broadcast shown last night was a powerful insight into how the relatives of murder victims suffer a pain that can never be fully healed.

Every morning, Steve dons a bullet-proof jacket before he heads off to work. Wherever he goes, he is discreetly monitored by at least two armed gardai. At the pub he owns, business is down 50pc because customers are terrified that one day a gunman will burst in the door.

The cameras followed Steve and his wife Carmel as they visited the beautiful area of Killaloe in Co Clare, where Roy had just finished building a house for his fiancee and two children.

"It breaks your heart," said the grieving father as he struggled to hold back the tears. "You hope it'll get better but I don't think I'll ever get over it... I miss him so much."

Carmel's grief was just as palpable. "I have no life, all my confidence is gone," she said. "You just feel there's nowhere to hide."

To lose a child is heartbreaking enough. To spend the rest of your life terrified that you might suffer the same fate is an agony that few of us can imagine.

Last night's film was a stark reminder of the debt that society owes to families who are brave enough to stand up to the thugs -- and why the State must continue to do everything in its power to protect them.



awkward

The programme also left Dermot Ahern with some awkward questions to answer.

If the Minister for Justice is serious about taking on gangland crime, he must confront the grim reality that witnesses with information that could be vital to prosecutions are often too terrified to give statements to gardai.

A witness protection programme has been put in place, but few people are willing to take part given that it usually means moving abroad.

The Collins' story is particularly tragic because it began with something so trivial. In 2004, Ryan Lee, who was raised by his uncle Steve after his own parents died, refused to allow a 14-year-old girl into the family pub where he was working as a barman. Unfortunately she was the sister of Wayne Dundon, one of Limerick's most notorious criminals who made the shape of a gun with his hand, pushed it in Ryan's face and told him he was a dead man.

Less than 30 minutes later, a man entered the pub with a sawn-off shotgun and shot Ryan twice in the knee and hip.

The Collins family were then faced with an agonising decision. They knew that by giving evidence against Dundon they could be putting their own lives in danger, but they also felt it was the morally right thing to do. Ryan testified in court -- and Dundon was sentenced to 10 years in prison (later reduced to seven by the Court of Criminal Appeal).



nightmare

In April 2009, the Collins' worst nightmare came through. Steve's 34-year-old son Roy was working in the family owned arcade when a lone gunman entered around midday and shot him in the chest.

Last May, James Dillon (24) was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison.

During the Dundon trial, Steve Collins was offered a bribe of €75,000 to drop the charges. Since his son's death, he has learned that the same amount has been put up as a bounty on his own head. He and his family are suffering a life sentence that may never be lifted.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. It is long past time for Ahern to introduce more radical legislation on garda powers and mandatory sentencing that will finally give these savages something to think about.


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