Sunday, 25 June 2006

IRA crime godfathers are winning drugs war

By Jim Cusack

Sunday June 25 2006
THE figures speak for themselves. The rate of murders that can be attributed to organised criminals, all involved in drugs, has trebled since the period before the murder of Veronica Guerin. Taken as a benchmark, the tripling of gangland murders probably reflects a similar increase in the amount of drugs coming into the country in the same period. Ireland, senior gardai now re

THE figures speak for themselves. The rate of murders that can be attributed to organised criminals, all involved in drugs, has trebled since the period before the murder of Veronica Guerin. Taken as a benchmark, the tripling of gangland murders probably reflects a similar increase in the amount of drugs coming into the country in the same period. Ireland, senior gardai now readily agree, is awash with drugs. Class A drugs like cocaine and heroin that were limited in supply to Dublin and maybe Limerick and Cork in the mid-Nineties are now available in every small town in the country. Ireland is not unique. The same increase in drug trafficking and related violence affects every State in the EU and beyond.

The recent murders signify little, however, about how organised crime has developed in Ireland since the murder of the investigative reporter in her car at Newlands Cross 10 years ago.

At the time, Veronica was on the verge of exposing the largely unknown quantity of organised drug crime in Ireland. Before she began delving into the activities of John Gilligan and his associates, gardai and the media had focused on the exploits of a small number of traditional Dublin gangsters, such as the remnants of gangs like that led by Martin 'The General' Cahill.

What was not known, or reported at the time of Cahill's death was that it was not, as claimed by the Provisional IRA, a murder carried out by them as some sort of rough "people's justice" or because he was allegedly involved with loyalists in a plot to bomb Dublin. Cahill was taken out by a leading figure in another republican terror group, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), which was then in the pay of Gilligan's gang - and remains linked, according to gardai.

The murder of Martin Cahill showed, for the first time, that in the wake of the IRA's terror campaign in the North, republican organisations were establishing firm roots in Dublin crime. After Cahill was murdered, the Dublin IRA - unbeknown to its northern leadership - issued a statement falsely claiming that it had murdered Cahill, diverting attention away from the real culprits. It was a neat exercise which suited both the republicans and the emerging power in drugs in Ireland.

Gilligan effectively had the complicit support of the Dublin IRA and had members of the INLA in his pay. He was importing enough cannabis to make everybody rich. He was even importing small arms which he passed on to republicans as sweeteners.

The murder of Veronica Guerin had a huge impact on "ordinary" organised crime but it did not stop the relationship between the former terrorists and the non-political criminals who emerged in the wake of the break-up of Gilligan's gang. It is thatrelationship that has forged the shape of modern organised crime.

In the two or three years after Veronica's murder, drugs importation was disrupted and gangland killings almost became a thing of the past. The first of a new trend in murders in Dublin began sometime in the late Nineties when a new professionalism appeared. One of the first and most notorious criminals to die was Joseph Foran, a 38-year-old vicious criminal and drug dealer from Finglas. Foran was shot dead as he sat in his car outside his home. He was killed by the Dublin IRA.

The IRA in Dublin had earlier killed a Sheriff Street man who was not involved in crime, Gerard Moran, 35, after he had a dispute with figures close to the IRA "officer commanding" in Dublin. Moran was killed with a shotgun fired by a motorcycle pillion passenger, a figure who was well-known to gardai and who was also a Sinn Fein election worker. A similar murder occurred in April 2000 when another north city man, Thomas Byrne, a petty criminal, was assassinated after he had a punch-up with IRA's Dublin OC. In both cases the victims were only guilty of showing disrespect to IRA godfathers.

Gardai detected the hand of IRA assassins in several murders in the later Nineties and opening years of the new Millennium. The IRA was in on Dublin crime and would have a profound effect on its resurgence after all the efforts put into tackling the issue in the wake of Veronica Guerin's murder.

The new organisational structure of Dublin crime became apparent to detectives investigating drug gangs in the south inner city. One gang with regular links to members of the local IRA was seen to be flourishing against what had previously been seen as daunting opposition from Martin Cahill's tough former gang members. In Easter 2000 an attempt was made on the life of Seamus "Shavo" Hogan but gardai intercepted the assassins who crashed their motorcycle at the Walkinstown roundabout. Both were members of the IRA and Sinn Fein. The pillion passenger was seen to throw a handgun into the grass on the roundabout and although this was immediately recovered the two were released from custody after only a brief detention - the reasons for their release raising eyebrows among local detectives.

Hogan was eventually assassinated by the IRA in July 2001 and his opponents have since had a free run in supplying the lucrative drug market in the south inner city, while their IRA protecters have also prospered.

The Government, obsessed with the continuation of the 'peace process' in the North, was seemingly at pains not to have the boat rocked by embarrassing revelations of IRA involvement in criminality in the Republic. It has never been officially admitted that gardai were asked to hold back against the Provisional IRA but many gardai saw it that way.

While the Dublin IRA was providing protection and the new base for the expansion in organised drug crime in the capital, other elements of the IRA were building up their own massive crime empires.

Fuel smuggling, which has cost both the Irish and British exchequers untold millions in fuel tax, boomed in the past decade, to the point where the IRA became one of the largest diesel suppliers in the island. Cigarette smuggling became another boom industry with the IRA again almost out-supplying the legal manufacturers. Another field of direct IRA involvement was armed hijackings, particularly of high-value containers from Dublin Port where the Dublin IRA controlled crime. This direct involvement in armed hijacking came to an end only two years ago when gardai arrested and came close to charging the Dublin 'OC'. After that, container hijackings were franchised out to Dublin criminals with close associations but no direct membership links to the IRA.

One of the major figures armed and directed by the IRA, Colm Griffin, was shot dead by the gardai during the armed raid of Lusk Post Office last year. He was wielding an IRA-supplied handgun when he was shot dead.

There has been no hard evidence to date that the IRA became directly involved in large-scale drug dealing. They tended to leave that to non-members who, gardai firmly believed, paid substantial percentages of their profits for IRA protection. The IRA may not be directly involved in the drugs trade but it benefited financially in a massive way.

More recently, the IRA has established links with organised crime in the same areas of the Costa del Sol where many of Dublin's top "ordinary" criminals now reside. Two months ago, the current Dublin IRA OC's successor was arrested with another well-known Dublin IRA man in connection with the seizure of a huge shipment of smuggled cigarettes clearly destined for the IRA and British markets.

The former 'OC' fled to Spain the year after the murder of Det Garda Jerry McCabe when gardai uncovered evidence that he had been involved in directing the attempted armed robbery.

What has emerged from the Spanish investigation that uncovered the IRA cigarette smuggling operation is that republicans have maintained a major smuggling network which may, in the past, have been used for weapons but is now used for contraband and, possibly, drugs.

It is not proven but the suspicion is there that - again at arm's length - the IRA is providing the transport infrastructure for Ireland's organised criminals.

One of the key strategic weapons deployed against organised crime in the aftermath of Veronica's murder was the introduction of the assets-seizure legislation and the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB). CAB has been a major success, tapping into the financial networks here and abroad of Ireland's leading criminals - and more recently republican networks.

CAB's success has been in exposing our big criminals, seizing their luxury homes and expensive cars. In order to hold on to their money, Dublin criminals along with associates from Cork and Limerick flocked to the coastal resorts of southern Spain where they were dubbed the "Murphia" by the earlier generation of British gangsters who fled to the sun in the Eighties and Nineties.

Almost by default, the Murphia became the wholesale middlemen and women who now supply parts of the UK drugs markets after developing mutual links with their British counterparts. Again, Gilligan was one of the first Irish criminals to develop these links. The fact that his gang is still in operation, but abroad, was underlined earlier this year with the seizure of 24 tons of cocaine being shipped to Spain from south America. Those arrested included British and Irish-born criminals and one with links to the Italian Mafia.

The Irish middlemen in Spain and to a lesser extent in Holland - both countries have laissez faire attitudes to foreign criminals - are doing well but they tend to live in reasonably priced villas or apartments, unlike the massively ostentatious new eastern European mafias who flaunt their wealth.

The Murphia sometimes ape the Russians, occasionally hiring supercars or ocean-going yachts to entertain or impress their fellow criminals but rarely invest in ownership of these vehicles or boats for fear of seizure. Occasionally they return to Ireland but only furtively, maybe to attend family weddings or other events.

One Dublin figure, formerly a leading member of the city's IRA brigade, spent a small fortune on his daughter's wedding last year but left almost as soon as the nuptials were completed. He, according to associates, puts on a brave face about his life abroad but, like many of the others, misses home. That, however, does not stop him and his associates making fortunes supplying drugs and contraband. The big fish - basically the same people who were around at the time Veronica was murdered - still run the show but they merely feed the Irish market.

Those now involved in the latest bloody round of murder and gun crime are merely their distributors, young men who become rich quick and often die young. Some of these distributors have tried to break into the big time in Spain but have found it very difficult. Those with aspirations to make it big on the Costa were given a sharp reminder that the godfathers still have clout in recent years. Two of them, former "Westies" gang leaders, Stephen Sugg, 26, and Shane Coates, 31, tried to bully their way into the big time in Spain only to disappear in mysterious circumstances in February 2004. At first it was thought they were in hiding but it is now accepted they are dead. Another young Dublin criminal, Sean Dunne, 28, also disappeared in September 2004.

Following the latest bout of killing centred on Coolock Garda District, Commissioner Noel Conroy has directed all available armed resources to target and harass the people responsible. In the coming weeks, they will be unable to breathe easy but this will have only a finite effect on drug crime, senior officers acknowledged last week.

One area gardai would like to see improved is Ireland's customs defences. Since the creation of the borderless EU, combined with the upturn in the Republic's economy, unforeseen levels of goods flow in and out of our ports. Yet, we still have only one container X-ray machine to cover the entire country's seaports. While it was still being tested last year the €3m machine picked up a drugs consignment worth about 10 per cent of its value. Given that the value of drugs entering this State must now be worth hundreds of millions, if not over a billion, there would seem to be a simple strategic need for more protection and detection equipment at seaports.

In international terms, there seems little can be done to combat the drugs market. The United Nations Office on Drugs Crime estimates the international drugs trade to be worth around US$322bn in retail terms.

Against this international backdrop there is very little sign that drug trafficking will stop. The Irish drugs lords have adapted and will continue to adapt to whatever measures are deployed against them.

The EU is currently negotiating with countries like Spain and the Netherlands to extend the same assets-seizure legislation devised in Ireland in the wake of Veronica's murder and already copied by the UK. However, that could take a decade. The international war against drug trafficking is being fought with only minor successes. The battle in Ireland ebbs and flows. For the moment, the traffickers are winning.

- Jim Cusack

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