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

Gardaí outside the house on Greensfort Crescent, in Clondalkin, Dublin, where John Gilligan was shot. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Mon, Mar 3, 2014, 01:00

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.