Ireland outraged as acquitted youth signals contempt

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A two-finger gesture by a smirking baby-faced youth acquitted of murder was at the centre last night of a soul-searching debate in the Irish Republic about whether its criminal justice system can cope with gangland crime.

The political and legal establishment was collectively affronted when the gesture by the youth, 19-year-old Liam Keane, was carried on the front pages of Dublin newspapers.

A member of a notorious family in Limerick, he had been accused of stabbing another teenager in the city. But he walked free after six witnesses either changed their evidence or retracted statements.

One witness said repeatedly, "I can't remember making no statement," adding: "I was out of my head."

The judge in the case described the witnesses as suffering from "collective amnesia," sarcastically telling two of them they would receive brain scans and any medical attention necessary to help their memory loss. As the prosecution collapsed he declared: "The likes of what has happened in this case has never, I can assure you, been encountered in this court before."

Gangland cases have always been hampered by the intimidation of witnesses and jurors, but Keane's defiant signal was taken as a direct challenge to all lawful authority.

An opposition politician told the Dail in Dublin: "That young man was not just giving two fingers to the community, he was giving two fingers to our criminal justice system and democratic institutions."

One Dublin newspaper said: "The sight of a bolshie teenager from a criminal family walking away after a murder trial and giving the two fingers to us all was infuriating and even a little chilling."

Yesterday the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, attempted to reassure the public, saying: "I do not believe that our system of criminal justice is in crisis. The suggestion that somehow the rule of law has crumbled or collapsed is wholly wrong."

The minister promised that an extra €2m would be devoted to gang crime, with extra police sent to Limerick, where police helicopter patrols and road checkpoints are already in evidence.

The city itself is regarded as something of an economic and cultural success story, with the slum world of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes now only a distant memory.

But in some deprived housing estates a gangland culture has blossomed, marked not only by a drug trade but by vicious feuding centring on two families, the Keanes and the Ryans.

The killing of which Liam Keane was accused appears to have resulted from a street scuffle over a dog, but other recent murders have involved the two families.

Keane's father Christy, a major drug-dealer, was jailed for ten years last year, having been arrested with 20kg of cannabis. Christy's brother Kieran, who assumed control in his absence, is suspected of having killed one of the Ryan family in a pub shooting.

Kieran himself was subsequently shot dead. Five Limerick men are on trial for his murder under particularly strict security at a Dublin court where the chief witness is Kieran's nephew.

In the courtroom itself the witness is accompanied by two large Special Branch men, a defence lawyer complaining that they had earpieces and "some sort of padding in their jackets".

Finding a jury proved difficult in the case, many potential jurors citing a variety of reasons to be excused. One told the court, "I don't think I'll be able to handle this. I'm a bit nervous. Another said he was "shaking."

Gangland killings are no novelty in the Republic, with more than a dozen in Dublin this year, but the fact that most victims are regarded as criminal characters means they generally receive only limited attention.

The Keane case has how-ever attracted much attention, with Prime Minister Bertie Ahern speaking of "a deeply evil group of individuals." He vowed: "We have to take tough actions against that."