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Gilligan threatened to kill me, but I still feel sorry for him

I'm sorry for John Gilligan. Apart from his closest relatives, I'm probably the only person in Ireland who is sorry for John Gilligan. The general view is that this is a gang leader who smiles his way through murder and mayhem, drug-dealing and the terrorising of innocent by-standers. A man without morals or mercy.

The general reaction to Saturday's news that he had been shot four times in the toilet of a house belonging to a relative of his took two forms: interest and delight. To hell with him, ordinary people said. He had it coming. The more those gangland guys shoot each other to death, the safer Ireland will be. All we can hope for is that they do it in places where law-abiding people don't get filled with bullets just because they're unfortunate enough to be in the location where gang-on-gang violence happens to be going on.

The lack of sympathy for Gilligan (inset) is summed up by a conversation that I overheard yesterday in which one guy told another that Gilligan, post-surgery, was now conscious in hospital and talking. "Pity," the other guy said.

Why am I sorry for Gilligan? Oddly, I probably wouldn't be sorry for him if he hadn't threatened to kill me.

What happened was that I did a column for this newspaper about the fact that Gilligan's face was wreathed in smiles as he headed from prison to the courts on one of his regular excursions. I pointed out that Gilligan had now reached a point in his life where he had no choice but to keep smiling. He'd been in prison for long enough to allow a complete new generation of gangs to develop. He was yesterday's man. Worse, he was the day before yesterday's man.

Sooner or later, one of the newer gang leaders was likely to provide evidence to his followers of how strong he was by stabbing Gilligan or having him stabbed in prison.


The once-powerful terror figure had no choice but to keep smiling, looking as if he was still on the crest of a wave that had, in fact, broken under him and was dribbling away with every day that passed with him in the clink.

John Gilligan didn't like my column about him in the Herald. It had never occurred to me that he would read it, so I was surprised when the then editor rang me and said someone had opened a letter meant for me that had come to the Herald offices. While they apologised for opening my mail, that wasn't why she was ringing. What was in the letter was a threat to my life from John Gilligan in which he had even drawn a tombstone with my name.

I laughed. She didn't. It would have to be given to the gardai. Two officers arrived at my office wanting to talk to me and taking this threat seriously. They advised me on varying my route to work, gave me other life-preserving tips and asked me how I felt about it.

"I just hope, if he kills me, it's efficient and fast," I said.

That's why, today, I'm sorry for Gilligan. Because the attempted assassination at the weekend was not efficient and fast. He fled through a house, he felt four bullets hit him and he survived, knowing they'll come for him again.

His release from prison yielded him up to a death sentence with no specific day or time or place or method. That's a well-deserved living hell, but I'm still sorry for him.