Bullets that ended a quest for justice

Veronica Guerin's ferocious commitment to tracking down crime stories made her one of Ireland's best known journalists. But that same doggedness led to a vicious gangland reprisal.
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The Independent Online
For the last six years Veronica Guerin, gunned down in Dublin this week in a clinical gangland reprisal, walked on ground that other reporters feared to tread. In her short journalistic career she went for the jugular of leading players in a string of major frauds, Catholic Church sex scandals, and, fatally, the lethal milieu of multi-million pound hard drugs dealing. Her fierce tenacity in chasing stories was matched only by the violence of those whose secrets she uncovered. The attack that killed her was the third time she had been victim of a shooting in 21 months.

Today, by a cruel irony, Veronica Guerin was to have addressed an international forum on the subject of journalists at risk - a seminar entitled "Dying to Tell the Story". It was a measure of her impact that her killing was yesterday being treated like the assassination of a Government minister; the murder investigation is being led by a Garda Commissioner heading 100 officers on the case.

Her high-risk approach was to get first-hand sources wherever humanly possible. She took risks that unnerved the most grizzled of veteran editors. Often, they did not know just how far she had gone, including "doorstepping" the most volatile professional criminals, until her finished copy landed on their desks ready to print.

Veronica only entered journalism in 1989, after previous careers in public relations, politics and the travel business. She sought advice on writing style but needed no lessons in commitment. Her major scoops displayed her passionate interest in the cut and thrust of Irish politics and in crime stories. Using her trained accountant's skills, she began by uncovering a trail of misappropriated funds in the state airline Aer Lingus. To gain entry to a confidential Isle of Man meeting she once persuaded a disgruntled creditor to nominate her as his accountant. The stunned expressions on the faces of the publicity-shy executives she was pursuing kept her laughing mischievously for days afterwards.

Overnight, she would head off to South Africa, Nigeria or London for one conversation with a contact, yet her usually impecunious editors approved the cost knowing that Veronica's stories would boost sales.

She continued her coverage of financial scandals with Irish Television's Today Tonight, and spread her wings in 1993 when she joined the quality weekly the Sunday Tribune, for whom she flew to Ecuador to secure the first riveting interview with the exiled Bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey, whose fathering of a son had convulsed the Irish Catholic Church the year before. The story ran over three issues; her departure to the Sunday Independent soon afterwards prompted a board meeting at the Tribune.

As crime correspondent of the new paper she began describing in meticulous detail leading criminals' spheres of activity, from armed robbery to manufacturing ecstasy or importing boat-loads of cannabis. Names could not always be used, but this only increased public intrigue and speculation as to who was who.

Crime magnetised her. Within two years her knowledge of the Dublin underworld, obtained from both other criminals and front-line detectives - some of whom were in tears on Wednesday after her shooting - was encyclopaedic. At a leading Dublin gangster's funeral two years ago she knew the exact identities and crime records of a host of those gathered around the grave.

Few of her stories failed to make the front page, with a further page of riveting detail inside. By early last year she was unearthing exclusives about the biggest-ever cash raid in Irish history, the north Dublin Brinks- Allied Security depot robbery, in which pounds 2.9m was stolen.

The raid was pulled off, it is believed, by a highly-organised and abstemious young gang leader known as "The Monk". Veronica revealed how he had availed himself of the government's tax amnesty in laundering some of his earlier plundered loot through property businesses.

The shock value of this and similar details helped bring home to the Irish public the extent to which a millionaire criminal class has emerged from the depressed concrete suburbs. One of her persistent themes during frequent television and radio appearances was to highlight the antiquated and ineffective Irish criminal law covering racketeering, in a country where domestic policing has been largely distracted by the Northern Ireland conflict. Government officials admit that no one has ever been jailed for fiscal fraud, except one man in Cork incarcerated for three days for non-payment of a fine. The weakness of that law may have helped decide Veronica Guerin's fate.

At least two gangs may have been involved in the three gun attacks on her. The second attack, in which she suffered a leg wound when shot in the doorway of the cottage she shared with her husband Graham and six year-old son Cathal, came within days of her reporting on the Brinks-Allied case in January last year. Typically, once over the initial shock of the attack, she treated the event as if it were a sports injury, akin to knocks she sustained as an international soccer and basketball player.

Her murder, say gardai, is more likely to be connected with her relentless pursuit of incriminating information about a Dublin ecstasy manufacturer whose burgeoning assets now include "legitimate" businesses around the country. Trading links mean Irish-made ecstasy is thought to be sold in English cities such as Manchester; Dublin criminals often have both family and criminal links with Britain, the latter forged during spells in UK jails.

As a colleague, Veronica displayed a sparky but genial toughness. Impatient and plainly spoken, she swore as bluntly as most males, particularly when up against petty or even large obstructions. Conversations with senior government officials or gardai on the phone could be peppered with her flinty north Dublin vernacular outbursts: "Will ye go away out of that!"; "Don't give me that shite!"; "Who are you kidding?" or simply "Would ye ever go and f*** off!"

As a long-term activist in the youth wing of Ireland's largest party, Fianna Fail, she was close to power, on first names terms with many government ministers and holidayed with Charles Haughey's children, with whom she and her husband were close friends. Among their favourite moments were the substantial meals and refreshments at Howth Yacht Club enjoyed by the ad hoc crews of Mr Haughey's yacht Celtic Mist, in the company of the former premier. She would delight in retailing his admiring asides from down the years about attractive women in public life.

Though a Haughey loyalist, even after her media forays made his immediate cronies more wary of her, not all her recollections about other politicians were as flattering. In her twenties she had to turf one famous but tipsy cabinet minister from her bedroom doorway during a political conference stopover at a country hotel.

The enigma for colleagues was how she reconciled her clearly evident powerful devotion to her young son with the risks she was taking. One day, talking about maternal bonds with children, she said, shaking her head dismissively, "You men just don't know", as if the mother's love of her only child were beyond all description.

Around her desk, jumbled up with financial statements, cuttings and interview notes, there would be a revealing clutter: one of Cathal's woollen mittens, a laminated bag from a smart San Francisco jeweller, Frank Sinatra tapes, bread recipes, travel brochures and match programmes from Irish soccer internationals. The gleaming red Opel she drove and the bright suits she wore also underlined her unwavering instinct to live life to the full every day.

This overwhelming tendency to live for the moment meant Veronica never seemed to gauge, as colleagues did, that her evidence-gathering could provoke fatal consequences. In recent months she implied that she might move on from crime coverage. If this seemed to infer a new hint of caution, she countered it by persisting with the pursuit of increasingly bigger criminal fish, a pursuit that ended in her murder this week.