The last time they tried to kill him, a bulletproof vest saved his skin. So this time they shot him in the face - 15 times. John Mullin on the fast-living drugs baron whose luck ran out
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 12 May 1999 02.31 BST
He died as he lived, at breakneck pace. He was only 24, yet he was Northern Ireland's most notorious drugs dealer, worth fabulous amounts and determined to spend it. He was betting ludicrous amounts on the pony he had just bought for £10,000 when the inevitable end came. Brendan 'Speedy' Fegan's assailants burst into the busy Hermitage Bar in his home town, Newry, Co Down, at Sunday lunchtime. They wore theatrical moustaches and wigs, and they took no chances.
A murder bid on Fegan three months earlier in south Belfast failed. His bulletproof vest meant he survived with only a chest wound. So they fired 15 shots, and aimed for his face. Much of his brain was left glued to the bar room floor as the 60 lunch-time revellers mysteriously evaporated into the spring sunshine. As his attackers had strolled towards him, one witness said that Fegan leapt to his feet shouting: 'It's the Provies. It's the Provies.' He had earlier told his bodyguard he could go home, and was reduced to trying to protect himself with a bar stool.
The RUC is investigating whether the IRA, which has murdered at least nine drug dealers in five years, was indeed responsible. Or if he was shot dead by a professional hitman. Or if his killer was the rival dealer behind the earlier murder bid on Belfast's Golden Mile. That shooting hardly dented Fegan's bravado. He escaped to England for a week or so. When he returned, he looked up journalist Jim McDowell, northern editor of the Sunday World, which has spent 18 months exposing his activities. They had a furious slanging match in a busy Belfast street with Fegan brandishing his injury at him.
Fegan's assailant had telephoned McDowell the day after the failed shooting. He asked him to pass on a message to Fegan. It was simple enough: 'Tell him I'll do it right next time.' He was also the target of a firebombing attack at one of two houses he had recently bought in Glengormley, just north of Belfast. After learning of an imminent attack, he had just rented it out to a single mother when the petrol bomb came careering through the window. No one was seriously injured.
Fegan, who inherited his love of horses from his late father, Pat, spent Sunday with his brother, Wayne, and his friends from the travelling community. They bet thousands on illegal pony and trap races on the dual carriageway at Warrenpoint, one involving his new asset. Unable to tell who had won a key race, they returned to the Hermitage with video footage taken by one of the travellers. He drove to the pub in his blue sports car, a Mitsubishi Lancer. He had bought it only that week, paying £25,000 in cash for it.
His love of fast driving had brought him his nickname. When one neighbour once admired another of his cars, Fegan replied openly: 'Well, that's the narcotics business for you.' When the video proved inconclusive, Fegan came up with another wheeze to settle the bet. He suggested that they put the entire pot on a sprint between himself and the traveller down Newry's Canal Street.
Welcome to drug dealing Northern Ireland style. Drug abuse is short of the epidemic there is in Dublin and many British cities. But it is getting there, with heroin taking grip for the first time. Eight people have died from overdoses, and seizures are up tenfold in a decade. The presence here of loyalist and republican paramilitaries complicates who gets rich fastest. Both are becoming more involved.
The IRA, for example, killed eight alleged drug dealers during its last ceasefire, which ended after 17 months in February 1996. It murdered under the cover name, Direct Action Against Drugs. The killings were seen as part of the IRA's strategy in both policing its own communities and saving youngsters from the drugs scourge. DAAD also shot dead Fegan's close friend Brendan Campbell, 30, in February last year, seven months into the IRA's current cessation. The murder was one of two which contributed to Sinn Fein's temporary expulsion from the multi-party talks at Stormont.
Campbell had also survived an assassination bid. He too was wearing a bulletproof vest when he was attacked in south Belfast. The same gun, curiously, is thought to have been used again this month in the failed attack on Ulster Freedom Fighters commander Johnny Adair, 33, when he was shot while on pre-release parole. He received a minor head injury when the gun misfired.
Campbell's luck ran out a month after the first attack on his life, when the IRA was tipped off that he was at Plank's restaurant in south Belfast. When he left with his girlfriend to walk to his BMW parked nearby, he was shot several times in the head. There were reasons other than drug dealing why he was killed. He had flouted republican authority in west Belfast, once drunkenly attacking Sinn Fein's Connolly House headquarters with grenades.
Security sources say that many IRA commanders, while publicly cracking down on small-time dealers, are happy enough to turn a blind eye to most drug trading in their areas, so long as the main operators are paying sizeable sums in protection money. The approach differs from area to area.
Loyalists, though, are directly involved. Several leading terrorists, including the late Billy Wright, are believed to have built huge personal fortunes trading in cannabis and ecstasy. Top drugs dealers are involved with paramilitaries on both sides making them valuable sources of information. That had led to clashes between Special Branch, which focuses primarily on terrorism, and the Drugs Squad.
It is believed that Fegan was an informer on both sides of the border. His murder came two days after Garda intercepted £850,000 worth of cannabis bound for Northern Ireland at Balbriggan, Co Dublin, after a high-speed chase. Police were acting on a tip-off. Despite his notoriety, Fegan was never convicted of any offence. His first port of call after he was shot in Belfast in February was, mysteriously, the RUC station in Musgrave Street.
As a teenager, Fegan became lieutenant to a Newry-based dealer Paddy Farrell, said to be worth up to £40m. He is thought to have double-crossed Farrell on a large consignment of cannabis just before Farrell's bizarre murder in September 1997. It let Fegan off the hook and presented him with an opportunity to move in. Farrell, a married father of three, was shot dead by his lover, 29-year-old Lorraine Farrell (no relation) at her mother's home in Drogheda, Co Louth. She was convinced he was returning to his wife, and planning to move with his family to Florida.
After the couple had sx, she blasted Farrell, naked except for a blindfold, with a shotgun before turning the weapon on herself. She had planned his murder and her suicide so well that she had even bought her own grave a couple of days earlier. But whereas Farrell wisely invested his fortune in legitimate businesses like car dealerships, spendthrift Fegan always needed outside financial backing. One theory is that he provoked his investors' ire after losing several large consignments.
He had close links with the drugs gang which murdered Irish reporter Veronica Guerin, 36, shot dead as she sat in her car at traffic lights on the outskirts of Dublin in September 1996. He was questioned about the killing, and released without charge. He was a distributor of cannabis in Northern Ireland, making up to £50,000 a week. He had, though, recently turned to trading in heroin, with Ballymena, the capital of Ian Paisley's north Antrim constituency, suffering an explosion in abuse and linked crime.
He had become increasingly erratic over the past 18 months. He is said to have ordered the murder of Frankie Turley, an armed robber who was shot dead in Newtonabbey, north of Belfast, after he had stolen a photograph of him and supplied it to the Sunday World. Turley, a small-time armed robber, was the fourth man involved in an armed robbery in west Belfast in February 1990 when the SAS summarily shot dead three men. He escaped by pretending to be one of the stunned punters in Sean Graham's bookmakers. He stole the picture from Fegan's flat in Moira, Co Armagh, one of his long list of addresses. It shows Fegan alongside Campbell in the back of a limousine. Both men are smiling, and Fegan's mobile telephone sits on his lap. He was enraged when the picture appeared in the Sunday World.
Fegan gave two of his henchmen £500 worth of ecstasy each, and ordered them to burn down the newspaper's offices in January. The arson attempts failed to stop the paper focusing on him. He was also severely beaten up by a rival drug dealer after sleeping with his girlfriend. The IRA had told Fegan to stay away from Newry several years ago. As a youngster, he had damaged some cars at a Gaelic football match. It is thought he was exiled for a time, but came back after the IRA's first ceasefire began in September 1994.
Republicans deny there were any recent threats. Sinn Fein, quick to point out it cannot speak for the IRA when the subject is arms decommissioning, said there was no IRA involvement in the killing. Sinn Fein councillor Brendan Curran, chairman of Newry and Mourne council, said: 'The IRA is not going to break the ceasefire and collapse the whole agreement over Brendan Fegan. There is absolutely no evidence to link republicans to the killing. He was a well known drug-dealer, and numerous attempts had been made before on his life. It is widely acknowledged he had numerous enemies.' His well-respected mother, Sheila, will bury him today. She had made sure he wanted for nothing, and he had charm and intelligence. But the writing had been on the wall for him for some time. On one gable end in Newry, reads the message: 'Speedy Fegan. You're a Dead Man.'