Crime boss returned to a world he did not recognise
John Gilligan has become a key target in the underworld he once ruled
Gardaí outside the house on Greensfort Crescent, in Clondalkin, Dublin, where John Gilligan was shot. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
When John Gilligan walked through the gates of Portlaoise Prison on October 16th last to experience his first taste of freedom since 1996, a crowd of reporters, news photographers and cameramen were waiting for him.
Many had spent the freezing night in their cars in the event the prison authorities freed him hours early to avoid the media’s gathering, anticipated to begin from first light.
In the small hours of the morning as the crime journalists chatted outside, hours were spent debating one question: How long will he last on the outside?
Regarded as a small man with a chip on his shoulder and a liking for disparaging one liners, there was broad consensus that he would be shocked by how far the gangland landscape had shifted since he was imprisoned.
He had been in jail so long that those younger criminals he had bullied when they were serving short terms in Portlaoise had grown to influential gang leaders who could no longer be put down by Gilligan’s sharp Dublin wit.
People who were still in national school when Gilligan was running his cannabis empire in the mid 1990s, were now the leaders of gangs that have been embroiled in feuds in Dublin and Limerick where up to 15 people have been killed in each of those feuds.
Fatality figures of that nature were unheard of before the cocaine boom from about the year 2000 onwards.
The fact Gilligan only dealt in cannabis and did not traffic in cocaine or heroin would seem almost quaint to the gangs of the current era and underline how he is now completely out of his depth. They trade single drug consignments of €10 million or more with partners in Europe and South America.
In 1996, the year Gilligan went to prison, Army bomb-disposal teams dealt with just one viable improvised explosive device.
In 2012 they dealt with 96 viable devices, and so far this year they have dealt with 70.
The number of firearms seized in 1996, when the Gilligan gang imploded, reached 696. That statistic peaked in 2008, when 971 firearms were seized. The number of guns seized last year was also 696.
The frequency of gun murders since 2000 has far outstripped anything that went before. And the gunmen and their victims are getting younger. It is not uncommon now for men in their mid-20s to have murdered a number of people or to have survived several attempts on their own lives.
Gilligan was released from an earlier prison term only 3½ years before Veronica Guerin was murdered and his gang imploded in the subsequent Garda response.
Gardaí believe any money earned in that very brief period of freedom has either been squandered, confiscated by the Criminal Assets Bureau, or lost in bad property investments made before he went to prison and via telephone while locked up.
Many sources say, though others disagree, that Gilligan is penniless and is desperately trying to put pressure on gangs to secure cash loans from them.
And it is believed to be these unwelcome approaches for help, with all the potential Garda and media publicity that now follows him everywhere, that has seen him become a prime target for assassination in the underworld.
One such outfit is an Irish-led crime syndicate based mainly in southern Spain and which is the biggest drugs wholesaler to the Irish market.
However, gardaí believe the two efforts thus far to kill Gilligan appear to be not as professional as other murders carried out by the Spain-based gang.
In the first effort to kill Gilligan last December, the gunman went to the wrong pub and asked patrons where Gilligan was before realising he was not there and fleeing.
And, while Saturday’s attack got much closer to killing the former gang boss, the firing of at least six shots by the gunman at a target from close range and failing to kill him suggests the involvement of criminals who have not killed before, or at least have not done it very often.
When gang leader Eamon Dunne, the John Gilligan of his day, was shot dead in a pub in Cabra, Dublin, in 2010 it was done with military precision and by shooting him in the head in a lightning attack, with the Spanish-based Irish cartel the chief suspects.
Garda sources believe the latest effort to kill the 61-year-old in his brother’s house was done by perhaps a smaller more inexperienced gang with a deep hatred for their target rather than any commercial reason for killing him.
Dunne’s murder, for example, was carried out because he was so volatile and killing so many people that he was destabilising the Irish drugs market the wholesale gang based in Spain was selling into.
“Gilligan has obviously read all the newspapers when he’s been in prison and seen how things have developed, but he hadn’t actually lived in that world,” said one source of the changed criminal landscape.
“In the 1990s, nobody would have dared to touch him, he would have been too big to try to murder,” said another.
“But he is an absolute liability now and even those smaller gangs he’s trying to put pressure on will be willing to kill him and most would be able to do that and he’s just learned that.”