The new John Gilligans
The crime scene John Gilligan knew in the 1990s is very different from today’s. A new generation of volatile young criminals is emerging
New order: John Gilligan leaving Portlaoise Prison on Monday. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins
When Martin Cahill, the gangland figure known as the General, was shot by the IRA in August 1994, there was no retaliation. At that time not even one of the biggest gangs in the State would take on the paramilitaries.
Almost 20 years later Alan Ryan, the leader of the Real IRA in Dublin, was ambushed and killed on the street in Clongriffin, on the north side of the city. Ryan had been a target because of his propensity for taxing with menaces some of the biggest crime gangs in Dublin, which are no longer afraid to stand up to paramilitary figures.
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.
That level of gun violence, and a Garda now more successful than ever at tackling organised crime, have greatly shortened the reign of most gang leaders.
“The young fellas around today would eat John Gilligan without salt, and he’s going to find that out pretty quickly,” says a Garda source.
But has gangland changed so much?
The single biggest factor that has changed organised crime since Gilligan was jailed in 1996 is cocaine. As the drug went mainstream during the late 1990s, a generation of young criminals who were still in their teens when Gilligan went to jail saw the money to be made in cocaine and set about working the market.
Criminals of Gilligan’s era normally began their crime careers when they were children, with small thefts, and over many years became more involved in robberies before establishing themselves as armed robbers, drug dealers or both.
In his 20s and 30s Gilligan robbed commercial premises. In November 1993 he was released from prison, having served time for handling stolen goods, and he set about building the biggest drug-trafficking rings, dealing only in cannabis, that Ireland had seen – until the murder of Veronica Guerin, in June 1996, led to unprecedented Garda attention on his gang.
The serving of an apprenticeship such as Gilligan’s meant criminals were generally older and more experienced by the time they became involved in high-stakes drug dealing. But the financial return from cocaine from about 2000 was irresistible to young criminals; many in their late teens and early 20s jumped straight into dealing drugs.
In recent years major drug gangs have been populated and led by men in their late teens and early 20s. “They were more hot-headed than the older criminals, because they were younger, and a lot of them were cocaine users themselves,” says one Garda source.
“They’ve tended to lock horns with their rivals over personal issues, and they’d lose sight of keeping the head down and making money. The fighting was as big a part of being in a gang as the moneymaking.”