Saturday December 27 2003
In the past year there has been an increase in gangland killings and violence on our streets. On the plus side these acts of brutality have finally forced the Government to release more funding to the Garda. WILLIE DILLON reports
One of the most enduring images of 2003, a year in which crime once again made regular headlines news, happened in early November. Liam Keane, a 19-year-old youth, was photographed giving two fingers to the camera, his face a frightening mix of hostility and aggression.
He had walked free from the Central Criminal Court in Dublin after six prosecution witnesses failed to stand over the statements they made to gardai identifying him as the killer of fellow Limerick teenager Eric Leamy.
His menacing gesture, shocked the nation. To many, it was the clearest possible indication that the criminal justice system was breaking down; that the rule of law was neutered and redundant.
However in those few fleeting seconds outside the Four Courts, Liam Keane managed to achieve something even beyond the powers of many of the country's most powerful interest groups. At a time of financial rectitude, he got the government to spend more money. On the day Keane's picture dominated the front pages, Michael McDowell announced an extra €2 million, available immediately, to boost Garda numbers in the worst crime spots.
The move was specifically designed to increase Garda visibility, including a greater number of armed street patrols, in the Finglas area of Dublin and in Keane's own Limerick City.
The Minister was careful to soothe public alarm, while also flashing a bolt of steely determination in the direction of the criminals.
"It would be foolish," he said, "to think the entire criminal justice system had broken down because of the collapse of one trial. But it would be even more foolish for people to believe that they can give two fingers to the community they live in and not ultimately expect to face the wrath of the State."
It was apt that the gesticulating Keane - an innocent man in the eyes of the law - was from Limerick. The deadly tit-for-tat bloodletting in that city's seemingly intractable gang feud made headlines throughout 2003.
The violence in Limerick and the continuing spate of gangland killings in Dublin dominated the year's crime coverage. In both cities, among the criminal classes, life remained cheap and death often came with a clinical brutality.
It started almost as soon as the year had begun. On the night of January 23, taxi driver Niall Mulvihill was shot several times in the chest as he sat at the wheel of his cab at Dublin's Spencer Dock. Though seriously injured, the 57-year-old victim managed to drive away from the scene. He made a desperate attempt to reach the Mater Hospital. But at the junction of North Circular Road and Dorset Street, he passed out. His red Mercedes smashed into the rear of another vehicle, causing a four car pile-up. He died a short time later.
Mulvihill was well known in Dublin soccer circles as the manager of Sheriff United. He was not directly involved in violent crime. However he was known to gardai for some 20 years as a negotiator of dubious deals for major gangland figures. He was believed to be associated with some of the city's most ruthless criminals, including Martin Cahill. At the time of his death, he was facing a demand for €1 million from the Criminal Assets Bureau. To date, his assassin has not been caught.
On the same evening, a dramatic chain of events began in Limerick when brothers Eddie and Kieran Ryan were apparently abducted by masked gunmen. A shot was fired as they were bundled into the back of a car. Their father Eddie had been murdered more than two years previously by members of the rival Keane gang. An anonymous phone caller warned that the youths would be found on their father's grave.
Extensive searches by gardai and soldiers failed to find any trace of the missing pair, despite agonised pleas by their mother Mary.
Their uncle Johnny Ryan pledged "all-out war" if they were not returned safely. Six days later, with the pair effectively given up for dead, gang boss Kieran Keane was shot through the head in an execution-style killing on a lonely country road near the city.
Hours later, there was a sensational and puzzling development when the Ryan brothers walked into Portlaoise garda station, looking unexpectedly fresh and well. Hordes of journalists descended on their home in Kileely but the pair declined to talk about their week-long ordeal.
Five men were later charged with Kieran Keane's murder. Their trial, amid unprecedented security at the Central Criminal Court in Limerick in October, generated further major controversy. The court was unable to muster a jury of 12 Limerick people, out of an original panel of 529.
The case was subsequently relocated to Cloverhill in Dublin where a jury was sworn in the following week. At almost exactly the same time, the Liam Keane trial was dramatically unravelling at the Four Courts. One of the six prosecution witnesses in that trial made his position clear even as he approached the witness box. "I seen nothing," he shouted. "I'm answering no questions."
In early July, Johnny Ryan, uncle of the abducted brothers and spokesman for the Ryan family, was himself shot dead in cold blood. The 44-year-old father of six was gunned down while he worked on the patio of a house in the city. His death sparked a celebration in the Keanes' part of town; members of their faction waved bottles of champagne in the street.
In October, Michael Campbell-McNamara (25), who had close connections with the Keane family, was found dead in a field on the outskirts of Limerick. He had been shot once in the back of the head and stabbed four times; his hands and feet were bound.
Last weekend the five men accused of murdering Kieran Keane trial, all from Limerick, were found guilty and sentenced to life in jail.
They were James McCarthy (24), of Delmege Road, Moyross; Anthony McCarthy (21), of Fairgreen, Garryowen; Desmond Dundon (20), Hyde Road; David Stanners (31), Pineview Gardens, Moyross; and Christopher Costelloe (20), Moylish Avenue, Ballynanty.
In Dublin, gang killings claimed the lives of more than a dozen men. Most of them were young. Most of the deaths were in the northern and western suburbs of the city. Carefully planned execution-type murders have become almost routine in certain parts of the capital in recent years and 2003 was no different. Big drug profits, combined with the now inevitable presence of deadly firepower, make further deaths inevitable. Regrettably, the general public has become increasingly immune - and indifferent - to these ruthless gangland slayings.
At the end of January, Raymond Salinger (40), known to gardai as a drug dealer, died after being shot three times in the chest and arm as he sat on a bar stool in a pub in Dublin's New Street.
In March, the body of band manager Charles Merriman (27) was found at the entrance to a field in the St Margaret's area. He had been killed by a single shotgun blast to the back of the head. The victim socialised with people who were involved in the drugs trade.
In early April, Declan Griffin, was shot in the back of the head at a pub in Inchicore. He was carrying a gun and was wearing a bullet-proof vest at the time of his death. Later that month, drugs courier Paul Ryan (27), from Raheny, was found shot through the head with his hands tied on the roadside near the village of Coolderry, Co Offaly. He is believed to have been killed by the notorious Westies drug gang over a debt he had incurred.
In June, Ronald Draper was shot dead while working as a doorman at a pub in Eden Quay at 10pm on a Saturday night. His is believed to have been killed by the INLA as a direct result of a vicious gang fight in Dublin in 1999 in which an INLA man was hacked to death.
In July, David McGuinness (35) was shot twice in the head and back by men who called to his home at Balrothery estate in Tallaght.
In August, Bernard Sugg (23), a leading member of the Westies gang, died after being shot twice in the chest by two masked men as he sat with friends in a pub in Corduff, Blanchardstown. Less than three months later, a man associated with the same gang, Jason Tolan (24), sustained a fatal gunshot wound to the leg in Mulhuddart.
In October, father-of-two Patrick Sheridan (27) was found dead at Scribblestown Lane, a notorious dumping ground for murder victims. He had been shot twice in the head . He died apparently because local criminals believed he was helping gardai in Finglas.
Three men died as a result of a feud between rival groups in the Finglas and Ballymun areas. In April, father-of-two Michael Scott (25) was killed by a shotgun wound to the chest in the bedroom of his flat on Sillogue Road, Ballymun.
The following month, William O'Regan (32) died after being shot while watching TV with his girlfriend in their flat at New Cabra Road. And in July, Victor Murphy (30) was found dead at Dunsink Lane. He was apparently shot accidentally while in a car with a man who was involved in the feud.
Outside the gang realms, one of the most shocking crimes of the year was the apparently random attack on 35-year-old librarian Barry Duggan as he wheeled his bicycle along Grafton Street at 2am on a Sunday morning in April.
The Garda National Drugs Unit scored a number of notable hits during 2003. One of the most significant was in January when 1.6 tonnes of cannabis resin, worth an estimated €20 million, was seized at a business premises at Swords, Co Dublin.
In April some €1.35 million ecstasy tablets, with a street valued of €15 million, were found in North Dublin and at Ashbourne, Co Meath. It was the single biggest ecstasy haul ever in Ireland. The same month, a tonne of cannabis resin and 38 kilos of cocaine, also worth some €15 million, was seized in Lusk, Co Dublin.
"We don't talk in terms of the battle against drugs," says Supt. Barry O'Brien, of the NDU. "It's more a battle against organised crime. Drugs are the medium through which organised crime engages in its activities and generates income and power."
But the overall crime picture is not as bleak as it may look. Despite the high profile gangland activity, there are considerable grounds for optimism. The latest Garda statistics appear to show a significant improvement in total number of crimes being committed.
The most recently available figures reveal a downward trend across almost the entire spectrum of serious crime. Even the murder figures are falling. A total of 47 people were murdered in the 12 months up to the end of last October - compared with 56 during the same period a year earlier. That's a drop of 16pc. The worst month this year was January when seven people were murdered.
Other serious crimes also fell during the same period. Sxual offences were down 20pc. There were 22pc fewer assaults. Even robberies were down 7pc and burglaries fell marginally. Incidents involving the possession of drugs for sale or supply were down 8pc. There were 11pc fewer firearms offences. But the biggest single category of criminal offence - accounting for roughly half of all serious crimes committed - was theft. It rose by approximately 2.5pc during that period.
So-called non-headline crimes were also down in almost all categories. Surprisingly perhaps, car theft comes under this definition of a minor offence. Car thefts are down a full 10pc during the period in question; from 13,959 to 12,500. Speeding offences rose from 2,167 to 2,280 - up 5pc. There were 10,472 incidents of drink-driving - a 4pc decrease.
These figures will not become official until the Garda Commissioner's report for 2003 is published next year. But on the face of it, they suggest that crime is not spiralling out of control as many of us seem to believe.
But the Minister is determined not to loosen the pressure. An extra €91 million is being made available to gardai next year. This will bring the force's budget over the €1 billion mark for the first time. Tough new laws, aimed at crime gangs and their associates, are on the way early in the new year.
The clampdown is the result of a review of crime laws in other jurisdictions ordered by Mr McDowell following the collapse of the Liam Keane trial. The young man may only have had the photographer in mind when he flashed his two-finger sign.