Newspapers: No doubt, no fear, just a desire to uncover the dark side of the city
In 1996, the crime reporter Veronica Guerin was shot dead. Her successor recalls life in a tough environment
Sunday 30 May 2004
It was a stunning summer's day for Dublin. The date, 26 June 1996, was to go down in our country's history as the day that changed journalism, and to an extent our attitude to hardened criminals, for ever more. Veronica Guerin, crime reporter on the
Sunday Independent, was murdered as she sat in her sports car at traffic lights on the outskirts of the city. She left behind her a husband, a seven-year-old son and a fantastic record of investigative journalism that left most of us trailing in her wake.
It was a stunning summer's day for Dublin. The date, 26 June 1996, was to go down in our country's history as the day that changed journalism, and to an extent our attitude to hardened criminals, for ever more. Veronica Guerin, crime reporter on the Sunday Independent, was murdered as she sat in her sports car at traffic lights on the outskirts of the city. She left behind her a husband, a seven-year-old son and a fantastic record of investigative journalism that left most of us trailing in her wake.
The story of her killing was made into a Hollywood film released last year, but for us it happened in real time. When I received the call, I too was in my car, having just left the Dublin police headquarters following an off-the-record briefing for a story I was working on.
I was Veronica's opposite number on the rival Sunday Tribune. I didn't know her well but I had met her on jobs and she had telephoned me a couple of times about stories. She was a nice woman. She had called me two weeks previously to congratulate me on a story about the IRA shooting of two police officers in County Limerick that she had been chasing too.
My mobile phone rang relentlessly as colleagues and police contacts called to ask if I had heard. Who has training in how to deal with the murder of a colleague? I was stunned into numbness. Yet seven hours later, along with the rest of the media, I was at the home of John Gilligan, regarded by Irish police as a leading gangland figure. Gilligan was to become the chief suspect for ordering Veronica's killing, although he was later acquitted of her murder. Assault charges were brought against Gilligan after Veronica was attacked during an attempt to interview him at his mansion. The charges were dropped after her death.
I do not know if I was overtaken by adrenalin, shock or journalistic professionalism, but I waited until the other reporters had left the scene before scaling the walls of the property and making my way through a field to the inner perimeter, scared not of whom I might meet, or how I might be greeted at the other end, but just of the dog in the field. Two days later I interviewed Gilligan by telephone and three days after that, I found myself being greeted by him at Schippol Airport in Amsterdam, where he embraced me and handed me a bouquet. The experience was surreal.
From the moment two weeks after Veronica's death when I received the telephone call from her editor inviting me to come and work at the paper, I knew that, metaphorically and literally, I too was in the firing line. Speculation about why I had been appointed was rife, but to my face the most frequently asked question was: "Are you not afraid?". People found my answer - "No" - difficult to comprehend. My predecessor had been murdered; I should have been terrified.
I have never been able to explain it fully, but to me, at that time, it was just a job. I took pride in my ability to communicate with these guys, to get them to talk to me and like me. And mostly they did, although I have never worked out why. Maybe it was because I communicated with them on an easy, non-judgmental level. Or maybe they just thought I was young and gullible (I was 27 when I took over at the Independent - petite with blond hair). Sitting in a dingy Dublin pub, I once asked one of the country's biggest drugs smugglers why he had chosen to tell his story to me. "I saw you on television and I thought you looked nice," he said.
In my five years as Veronica's successor, I found myself in some very threatening situations, yet I never felt threatened. I was instructed briefly in counter-surveillance, and senior police officers kept me abreast when they perceived the need for me to take a more cautious line. I only ever met criminals by prior agreement with my news editor. The need for such measures became apparent very quickly after Veronica's murder - five days to be precise - as I travelled to Amsterdam to interview Gilligan.
Having checked in at Dublin Airport, I went to the lavatory only to receive a call on my mobile from Gilligan. "You're in the departures area," he said. "You've got long blond hair and you're wearing jeans and a red jacket."
Looking back I should have been terrified - Gilligan was clearly having me shadowed. But again, I was in journalistic overdrive, driven by being the first journalist to interview in person the most wanted man in Ireland. It was several weeks later when I received a more chilling call regarding that trip, this time from a senior police officer. He told me that the man who had shadowed me was Brian Meehan, later convicted of driving the motorcycle from which another man shot Veronica. My blood turned cold, but only for a few seconds.
During the months that followed Veronica's death, the spotlight was placed firmly on the task of tracking her suspected murderers. During my interviews with Gilligan, he admitted to me that he had threatened Veronica and he also admitted that he was involved in gangland crime. I was a state witness against him when the Irish police finally got him to court.
He was arrested four months later at Heathrow Airport, in a joint British-Irish police operation. He was carrying substantial amounts of cash in his metal briefcase, which, for a man on the run, was remarkably stupid. Obviously, he had come to believe he was untouchable.
The next day, I was on an early plane out of Dublin to Heathrow airport, from where I made my way to Wormwood Scrubs. My heart sank when I learnt that Gilligan had been upgraded to a Category A prisoner at HMP Belmarsh - Home Office rules demand special permission for entry to a top-security prison, and I had planned to arrive unannounced. But the gods were obviously smiling on me. A prison officer assumed I was Gilligan's distressed girlfriend and let me in.
I was to see a very different side to the affable gangster that day. At first, Gilligan was delighted to see me and clearly took pleasure in the idea that we were co-conspirators against the authorities. But when I challenged him about earlier denials regarding his associations with Brian Meehan, he turned. Ignoring the glass partition between us and the burly prison officer at his shoulder, his eyes became viciously cold. He stood and slammed his chair against the floor. "I'm not listening to this shit," he said, or words to that effect. My cover was blown and I was escorted from the premises, deeply shaken.
Gilligan was acquitted of Veronica's murder but convicted of drug smuggling offences and given a 28-year sentence, reduced on appeal to 20 years.
Since then, a a great deal in my life has changed. I got married and I am now the mother of two young daughters. I am no longer a crime reporter. As I look at my children, I know I couldn't do now what I did then.
I got a huge adrenalin rush out of getting these guys to talk to me, getting them to allow me into their homes. Everybody wanted to know what they were thinking and sometimes I was able to deliver on that. The feeling was very good.
Now I get the best of both worlds. I still write about the bad guys, but it's fiction. I need go no further than my own home office, grapple with nothing more dangerous than my Thesaurus.
* Brian Meehan was charged with the murder of Veronica Guerin and was convicted. He is currently serving a life sentence; an appeal against his conviction is imminent.
* Gene Holland, the man whom Irish police said in court they believed had shot Veronica, received a 20-year sentence for drug-trafficking. The sentence was reduced to 12 years on appeal.
'Last to Know', Liz Allen's new novel, is published in paperback by Coronet, £6.99
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