Dublin gang crime wave rocks police

Alan Murdoch reports on a `new Kray' era
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The Independent Online
NORTHERN Ireland may be enjoying its sixth month of the silence of the guns, but south of the border armed violence is an increasingly regular fact of life on the streets of Dublin. With political violence disappearing, gang warfare is suddenly very visible, and Dublin is suffering from an organised-crime crisis. There is a localised climate of fear reminiscent of the Kray era in London, imposed by three main gangs in their home territories. Witnesses are understandably reluctant to testify against them in court.

Public alarm at the apparent inability of the gardai, the Irish police, to tackle highly disciplined organised criminals has intensified in the 12 days since a gang pulled off the biggest cash robbery in the history of the state with apparent ease, despite weeks of 24-hour surveillance against them by detectives during November and December.

Last Monday, six days after the IR£2.8m raid on the Brink's-Allied depot near Dublin airport, Veronica Guerin, the republic's leading investigative journalist, was shot. In recent months she has produced detailed exposes of the operations of the city's criminal underworld.

Shots were fired through the windows of her house last October - as a warning, it is believed - by the same gang responsible for the robbery. She recently interviewed the gang leader who is the chief suspect in the Brink's-Allied investigation, and last Sunday published disturbing revelations about how he had used the state's own 1993 "hot money" tax amnesty to sanitise his illegal earnings.

Despite Ms Guerin being such an obvious target, gardai had no surveillance or protection in place when a lone gunman knocked at her secluded home last Monday evening and pointed a .45 pistol at her head. He then lowered the gun and fired a bullet into her thigh.

She has spent the week in hospital protected by armed gardai and her brothers.

Dublin, with a third of Ireland's population, has two-thirds of the crime. Within the city are pockets of chronic unemployment, economic wastelands that embody decades of inner-city decline. In this climate professional criminal families have become established amid an extensive black, stolen and smuggled goods economy, and a booming trade in hard drugs.

The past 18 months have seen a spate of unsolved Dublin gangland killings, among them that of a property developer reportedly with business connections to the Brink's-Allied suspect, and that of Martin Cahill, the gang leader known as "The General", who had made a personal crusade of highlighting the inability of detectives over many years to jail him for serious offences.

Cahill's favourite ploys included visiting garda stations to have his driving licence checked - thus establishing the perfect alibi - while his gang carried out robberies, and intimidating garda officers by honking his car horn while passing detectives' homes as they tailed him.

Cahill's sudden demise last August, apparently at the hands of the IRA in its last killing before the ceasefire, left the 31-year-old northsider who is blamed for the Brink's-Allied raid, as the most prominent gangland figure.

The identity of this man is widely known. If anything he is more violent than Cahill, having been linked with a string of murders.

Ms Guerin said she found him cold and ruthless, and observed that his non-drinking lifestyle owed less to any keep-fit enthusiasm, as others believed, than to an overriding self-discipline. The abstinence he fostered among gang members, including two brothers, was, she discovered, based on the sound conviction that sober criminals are less prone to boastful loose talk.

Her article detailing his rise, published the day before she was shot, highlighted a truly alarming official own-goal that may have law and order consequences for years to come. Gardai suspect that the man carried out an earlier Dublin security van robbery in 1987 yielding IR£1.4m. The latest raid was remarkable in that it occurred moments after armed gardai had left the security van, which was carrying 75 cash bags collected from around the Dublin region, at the entrance to the depot.

Bridging a dyke with railway sleepers, the robbers drove two off-road vehicles through two metal security fences they had earlier sawn through. They then rammed through security shutters on the loading bay and seized the money before it was passed into an underground vault.

Public confidence in the gardai is now probably at its lowest since the debacle of January 1990. Then, poorly co-ordinated garda units on a stake-out accidentally shot nine people, including three of their own officers, during a Co Kildare bank raid.

Recent popular dismay was summed up by an evening paper which complained that "the gardai seem to have no luck against anyone with a brain bigger than a pea".

One of the government's own back-benchers, Eric Byrne, warned that the gardai were "becoming the laughing stock of the entire criminal community" and added: "There can be no more excuses now."

Policing the Irish capital has long posed special problems. Garda practice has been to send into Dublin young recruits predominantly from quiet country areas with little experience of the more threatening inner-city environment.

There has also been mutual mistrust between the force and communities in less affluent parts of Dublin, dating from when interrogation techniques were more physical and indiscriminate than today.

Gardai themselves admit that their methods have failed to develop to match the evolution of more sophisticated urban criminals who are well informed on their rights under the law, and intent on maintaining silence under pressure.

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