Justice shot to pieces

A year on from the murder of the Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, there seems little hope of bringing the culprits to book.
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The Independent Online
On World Press Freedom Day, last Saturday, journalists remembered the 32 of their colleagues killed last year in the course of their work. All of those deaths were shocking, but few can have generated as much outrage as the murder of the Dublin crime journalist Veronica Guerin.

The 36-year-old journalist, mother of a young boy, was shot dead at traffic lights by the passenger on a motorbike as she drove from Naas in County Kildare towards Dublin last June. She had apparently been shadowed during the drive from a courtroom where she was facing a summons for a driving offence.

Her death sparked anger throughout Ireland and focused attention on the emergence of a ruthless criminal elite linked to the resurgence of a large- scale drugs trade in the last four years. Public anger was vented at politicians who, it was argued, had been negligent in the face of a massive increase in heroin trading, highlighted by dramatic falls in street prices. But 11 months on, the case is far from being solved, and police fear contact between suspects and the media may prejudice its outcome.

In recent weeks it has emerged that sophisticated electronic surveillance devices were being used to try to anticipate the moves of the murder inquiry team led by Assistant Commissioner Tony Hickey. The bugging attempt was discovered after a self-confessed suspect in the killing, Patrick Gene Holland, 58, and a pregnant 27-year-old woman were arrested as they stepped off a ferry at Dun Laoghaire, south of Dublin, on 8 April.

Holland was wearing dark glasses and had a cap pulled down over his head. Drugs Squad detectives spotted him and shadowed him as he went towards a rented car. When brought to the murder inquiry headquarters at Lucan, west of Dublin, a pair of headphones connected to a cigarette packet-sized device in the woman's handbag were found to be picking up conversation at the other end of the large room. The source microphone turned out to be under the rubber heel of Holland's shoe.

Later that day, a number of listening devices were found in a rented room near Lucan garda station. Further bugging rooms were subsequently discovered at a hotel in the west Dublin working-class suburb of Tallaght and at a flat near the inner-city Bridewell garda station. Holland was charged three days later in Dublin with possession of cannabis and intent to supply.

Earlier, a holiday video came into the hands of the United States media showing several Dublin criminals, including one suspected of ordering Guerin's murder, at a private swimming pool in the Caribbean. The video includes footage of two men raising their glasses while in the pool and saying, "Here's one for Veronica Guerin," while another man jokes, "Crime doesn't pay."

The video has come to light amid fears that calculated attempts were being made to muddy the legal waters in advance of any trial. These saw serious overtures to the print and broadcast media in Ireland offering interviews with one suspect who was living in London after fleeing his home in Ireland last October.

Gardai feared that such contact between suspects and media might be intended to create such a barrage of publicity around a suspect's public identification that he could legitimately claim his chances of a fair trial had been prejudiced. Some years ago the suspect in a notorious Dublin rape case made a daily point of lingering in front of photographers in the apparent hope that his picture would be used and the trial derailed under contempt rules.

Such goings-on have made clear that gardai are dealing with criminals more schooled in legal procedure and simply more cunning than in the past. Gardai have been warning the media about apparent dirty tricks since late last year: senior officers warned of attempts by the murder gang to plant press stories undermining the investigation at a time when a garda faced a corruption charge.

On other fronts, detectives hope to open extradition proceedings against Dublin criminals who took refuge on the Continent around the time of the murder. The elaborate plot involved numerous accomplices in concealing the weapon, throwing the getaway motorbike into the River Liffey, and destroying the killers' clothes. So far more than 130 people have been arrested and questioned as part of the investigation, but only one person, a 32-year-old man from Crumlin in south Dublin, is facing charges directly arising from the shooting.

The case has also highlighted the peculiarities of having Irish and British newspapers sold side by side on shelves in both countries while operating under different laws. An Irishman arrested at Heathrow Airport last October was recently sent for trial by Belmarsh magistrates on drug-trafficking charges. London-published papers were barred from giving full accounts of the Belmarsh proceedings. But Irish papers decided they were not so bound, and treated readers to pages of testimony from the pre-trial committal hearings.

There is widespread pessimism about the chances of a watertight prosecution being mounted against the real culprits. A history of witnesses being intimidated in Dublin criminal cases has made it particularly difficult to mount organised-crime cases in the city. Ireland's Justice Minister, Nora Owen, recently indicated that a witness protection programme was being set up. But the effective admission that the murder inquiry had gone this far without one seems to have alarmed the public more than it reassured.

According to Irish newspapers, attempts were made in London in the New Year to bribe one witness, himself wanted on drugs charges. Offered a new start abroad if he went into hiding with the gang, he instead returned to Ireland, where he is now reportedly being held in prison for his own safety.

Legal constraints may affect the ability of film producers in the US to turn the story of Ms Guerin's life and death into movies. A Disney- backed production scripted by Los Angeles-based writer Carol Doyle and a second based on a project developed by a colleague of Ms Guerin's at the Dublin Sunday Independent newspaper are planned, with Winona Ryder and Jodie Foster being mentioned for the key roles.

Members of Ms Guerin's family have been less than keen about the film plans; they want some peace. The prospect of film companies seeking to cash in on the story within months of the journalist's death, and while the murder inquiry is going on, raises important questions about the victim's family's right to privacy, especially where a young child is involved.

Some repercussions from the murder inquiry have been positive, including an increase in garda pressure on organised crime in Dublin, with more than 100 guns seized in related raids, and cannabis importation curtailed. Perhaps the biggest development has been the creation of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB), which has aggressively gone after land, cars and homes of suspects in the case.

Meanwhile, the threat to the small group of full-time crime reporters in Dublin is, it seems, still present. Irish Republican Socialist Party sources recently issued an ominous warning that journalists could be targeted if they continued to make allegations of links between its military wing, the INLA, and the sale of heroin in south Dublinn