Ireland is discovering that gangsters are not glamorous

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I ONCE shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of Al Capone. The journalist, novelist and great trouble-maker Claud Cockburn, who moved to Ireland after the war, interviewed the Chicago mobster for the Times in the late 1920s, when prohibition was in full swing and Capone was at the height of his powers. I still remember the curl of Cockburn's lip when, 15 years ago, I asked him about Capone. "His office," he said, "looked like the office of a rather crooked oil executive, but his behaviour was like a fuddy-duddy sort of bank manager. He talked about murder like any businessman would talk about a good day on the stock market." So conventionally conservative were Capone's views, indeed, that Cockburn decided not to send the interview to his paper, because, as he explained to his irate editor, he didn't think readers would like to see Times editorials reproduced in the words of a vicious goon.

I still remember my own vague sense of disappointment at what Cockburn had to say. In those days, gangsters were still, for most Irish people, the colourful and elemental creatures of the movies. We hadn't had the banal evil of the Kray twins to shed the cold light of reality on Jimmy Cagney and Edward G Robinson, or, for that matter, on Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in the Godfather movies. We couldn't imagine a gangster behaving like a bank manager. It is hard even for people who are used to the reality of mafiosi and drug cartels to keep from glamorising the likes of John Gotti and Pablo Escobar. In Ireland, where "organised crime" sounded like an oxymoron, it was virtually impossible.

All that has changed in the last two months, since the murder of the journalist Veronica Guerin, the country's best known crime reporter. She was the victim of a ruthlessly efficient professional killing, four bullets pumped into her heart and neck while she waited at traffic lights in a mundane Dublin suburb. The cold brutality of the murder, and the fact that the victim was familiar to most Irish people, marked the violent death of many illusions about the nature of organised crime. The attempts to discover the identities of the killer and whoever issued the orders has been changing the way people think, not just about crime, but about Irish society itself.

The existence of serious and ruthless criminals in Ireland is not, in itself, news. Crime rates have been, and still are, very low by international standards, but Dublin in particular has had a disastrous heroin problem since the early 1980s. Drug pushers have long been hate figures but they have been, for the most part, not so much anonymous as pseudonymous. Because of strict libel laws, and because the top criminals have been notably good at avoiding prosecution, media coverage of their activities has been scattered with nicknames like The Monk, The General, The Footballer, The Boxer, and even The Penguin. Sounding as they do like baddies from Marvel comics or Batman movies, they retained an aura of mystery and an air of unreality.

The media has responded to the murder of Veronica Guerin, though, by dropping the aliases and printing photographs of those suspected of being the controlling figures of organised crime in Ireland. Mundane individuals have emerged from behind the ludicrous epithets. The public has been finding that a thug by his real name smells far more nasty.

We have been learning what Claud Cockburn discovered about Al Capone. Behind the legendary Scarface, there was just an especially banal and especially corrupt businessman. Behind The Footballer, The Boxer and the other aliases, are businessmen with an eye to the main chance and a lack of scruples about the most effective methods of taking it. And as their names and faces emerge into the real world, they bring with them an awkward question: how have they been able to get away with it for so long?

The unpleasant answer is that Ireland has been extraordinarily soft on white collar crime, and that the most successful criminals have long since learnt how to wear clean, white collars. The beef industry scandals, revealed by a long public inquiry in the early 1990s, showed that large-scale criminality can be conducted in tandem with legitimate and outwardly respectable businesses. The main company involved in the large-scale scams had, at one stage, controlled almost 5 per cent of Irish GNP and had been a major contributor to conservative political parties.

Instead of thinking through the implications of that revelation, though, Irish governments did little to tighten up on fraud, tax evasion and money laundering, and the only prosecutions to result from the beef inquiry were those of some low-level managers and of the journalist who broke the story in the first place and refused to reveal her sources. The previous Irish government actually brought in an amnesty for hot money held in domestic and off-shore accounts. As Veronica Guerin revealed before she was killed, a number of top gangsters took full advantage of it.

The most important official response to the murder has been the introduction of legislation allowing for the seizure of assets that are suspected of being the proceeds of crime. The implementation of this measure has involved the police questioning, not just gangsters, but also accountants and financial advisers. For what is slowly being acknowledged is that the most successful criminals are the ones who can blur the distinction between crime on the one hand and business on the other.

Looking into the bank accounts of one of the men suspected of involvement in the murder, for instance, police have found that an estimated pounds 13m passed through them in the last two months. Much of it, they think, belonged to Belgian, Dutch and Spanish drug traffickers, and was transferred to Ireland to be laundered through apparently legitimate businesses. Likewise, it is becoming clear that others suspected of involvement are not the denizens of a murky underworld, but the owners of outwardly respectable businesses: garages, bookmakers, leisure centres, sports shops, and even a high-class equestrian centre.

In The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd, Woody Guthrie wrote that there are two types of criminal:

Some will rob you with a six-gun

And some with a fountain pen.

But with modern organised crime, the two tend to go together, gangsters taking power with a gun in one hand and an accountant's fountain pen in the other. This is what people in Ireland have been discovering in the wake of Veronica Guerin's murder. The hope expressed by her husband that her death would not be in vain and that Ireland would wake up to reality will not be fulfilled until her killers have been brought to justice. In the meantime, while those who ordered the trigger to be pulled have yet to be found, Irish society is learning where to look.

The writer is a columnist with the 'Irish Times'.