'I didn't expect to lose a son. The guards took their eye off the ball'
Steve Collins stood up to the Limerick gangster Wayne Dundon for his family and for justice. But after the maiming of one son and the murder of another, he believes the State has now abandoned him, writes KATHY SHERIDAN
WE MEET IN A country town, in a corporate hotel lobby with blaring music. Armed Limerick detectives are positioned near the entrance, scanning arrivals. Later, if their charge heads for Dublin, they will hand over to the Special Detective Unit. In case of kidnap, his car is equipped with a red alarm button and satellite tracking connected to Garda headquarters. Meetings with family have to be conducted away from their homes; during them, his escorts remain outside, questioning anyone who approaches. “That’s my life now,” says Steve Collins evenly, ordering a glass of water.
The tense, watchful scene in this hotel is what he and his wife, Carmel, call a break. This is the nearest they get to a normal life. Back in Limerick, when her husband goes to work in a bulletproof vest, trailed by his two armed guards, Carmel stays locked in a home fitted with bulletproof windows, CCTV, alarms and panic buttons. “She can’t come outside the door. She has no life. This is her life now, getting away for a few days to places like this,” he says. “Other than that she’s locked in the house and I let her out when I come home. She can’t go to the shops; she can’t do anything. When I come home I bring her out of the house; we go for a bit of lunch. The guards follow, and they’re sitting with us . . . You have no privacy. You can’t move; you can’t do anything. So you go to places like this for two or three days, to unwind.”
They used to enjoy cruising the Irish waterways in their boat. “I got rid of it. It’s physically impossible to mind us on a boat.” His other great passion was matches at Old Trafford with his boys. “I haven’t gone since Roy died. I can’t bring myself to do it . . . It’s something we always did together,” he says, his voice trembling. “Yeah. It’s a terrible life. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But what’s the alternative? The alternative is I’d be dead now.”
The catastrophic chain of events began six years ago in one of Collins’s pubs, with the refusal of a drink to a 14-year-old girl. Wayne Dundon, the Limerick gangster, took offence and made a graphic death threat to Ryan, Steve and Carmel’s nephew and adopted son. Twenty-nine minutes later Ryan was shot and maimed by a man in a crash helmet wielding a .45 Magnum. Their family’s evidence, given after careful consideration, sent Dundon down for 10 years. The payback was the murder of their son Roy, last year, by a Dundon gang member.
Meanwhile, the family business is in melt-down. Collins’s €15 million property portfolio, including three pubs and a casino, built up by the former electrician and his family over 20 years of 18-hour days, is hardly worth a third of that now, he says.
One thriving pub was burned to the ground a month after Dundon’s imprisonment; three pipe bombs were planted at a second, cutting business by half; a third left the family too exposed, so it has been rented out. The casino is closed. A price remains on Collins’s head and on those of his two Limerick-based sons.
So why haven’t they cut their losses and joined the witness-protection programme? Because there isn’t one, apparently.
“The programme they had was designed for criminals. Most of them are on the dole anyway, so you whisk them away, give them a few bob, a place to live, a job maybe . . . I said, If we go into that, what happens? They said, We’ll get you over maybe to Austria, and your parents and sisters and brothers can meet you once a year, maybe down in Marseilles.”
Collins, mystified, asked for somewhere he could speak the language maybe, and they came back with Canada. But pub work or electrical contracting would be ruled out, they said, as these would make him traceable. So would they help him build a business there? “Well, we could train you as a carpenter, they said. I said, You’re having a laugh at me, aren’t you? But that was their answer. A trainee carpenter . . . at 55.”
He asked how starting a business in the programme might work, as it was hard enough to get “a few quid out of a bank manager here who knows your track record . . . So how in the hell could I walk into a bank in Canada under a new name and ask for money to start a new business?” They couldn’t answer. “You’d just be dropped there and you’d get on with it. I said, I can’t do that; we have business interests still in Limerick – what do I do with all that? They said, We don’t know really; we’ll have to get back to you. That was about nine months ago, and they haven’t come back to us since.”
The past few years have cast Steve Collins into a desperate, bewilderingly polarised world. On the one hand his likeable accessibility and relentless, highly successful campaign for new anti-gang laws have turned him into a media personality and popular hero. On the other he continues to live in fear, mourning his beloved son and the destruction of normal family life, growing progressively angry at the state’s foot-dragging and unwillingness to help the family rebuild their lives.
With some satisfaction he describes how the new legislation has scattered the gangs. “The law changes have affected every gangster in the country. They’re all moving away. It’s affecting business – and if you affect business in the drug game you’re seen as the enemy, so they probably want me dead in Dublin now as well. It’s destroyed drug empires. The Dundons were the biggest players in the game, but they’re nothing now. Wayne Dundon is over in Bristol, laying tar on the roads” – he was released last year after serving five years of his sentence, which had been reduced on appeal from 10 to seven years – “so that’s kind of brought him down to his knees . . . A couple of weeks ago eight people were arrested and are now locked up, awaiting trial. That’s what our law has brought about. Things have gotten very quiet in Limerick.”
Despite heavy pressure from civil-liberties campaigners he has no reservations about the controversial legislation. “Sometimes something like this has to happen to you personally before you understand . . . They were running this city. They were starting to take over the State . . . It’s crazy that they got that strong.”
The court cases opened their eyes. It took three attempts to convene a jury in Dundon’s case, because of jury intimidation. On day one a juror got physically sick in the jury box after receiving a note threatening his family. On day two only 12 turned up of the 110 people called for service.
The family were incredulous that three people brought in for questioning to three different garda stations in connection with Roy’s murder were legally entitled to engage the same solicitor, and that when a judge was asked to rule on extended periods of detention the content of all interviews conducted up to that point had to be read in open court. Collins is happy that most of these points are being addressed, in particular that surveillance evidence may now be used in court, though he would have liked to see stronger legislation around the precise constitution of a “gang”.
The tragedy, he says, is that it has taken 15 years to get this far, 15 years since the Dundons first strutted into town and “things started to get messy. That’s when the guns started coming in. They took over Weston. They offered people £10,000 for a house that was worth £70,000, and when the people wouldn’t take it they burned them out. They took over whole blocks of houses, marking their territory, so they’d all be living in a square in what they called their stronghold. There hadn’t been a kid playing outside there for 10 to 15 years, but there are now”.
On the surface Steve Collins is a hard-liner. “Everyone knows who the [gang members] are . . . They should be picked up and taken away,” he says. He would also make prison a much harder station for gangster inmates. But he also recognises that these gangsters were once children, “all little tough guys – I’ve seen them from babies”, the products of deprivation and strung-out or absent parents. “A lot of them have absolutely nothing to look forward to. Nothing. And then you get idiots like the Dundons who come along with all the bling and throw money at them, giving them free drugs and putting them in a nice car, showing them a bit of the gangster life.”
Driving to the community centre at Ballynanty one evening to give a talk, he was struck by how “all the kids were sitting in rows on the wall outside, looking in, not allowed by security past the gate of this fabulous centre, which had closed at six o’clock after pensioners using it all day. The cars coming in . . . for them, that was the most exciting thing to happen that night. I asked why it wasn’t open after six; they can’t get insurance on it. Well, the Government should be covering the insurance on it – and there’s plenty of community workers up there that’ll work there and help . . . Those kids are so vulnerable, so easily led”. He pins the blame on politicians. “They let it happen. All through the years they were building these massive estates with no facilities. They created this monster. Then the police said they hadn’t enough strong powers. The criminals knew exactly how far they could push, so you had this cat-and-mouse stuff. And that was okay going back years, but when you’re dealing with guns, well, it was all up then.”
When Ryan was shot, senior gardaí saw an opportunity to remove the most senior member of the McCarthy-Dundon gang from the streets. They couldn’t prove that he shot Ryan, but there was evidence that Dundon had threatened to kill him, and they implored the Collins family to come forward as State witnesses. While Dundon was in for questioning, he broke the jaws of two gardaí. That would have got him five years, but with the Collinses’ testimony he would get 10. He would be gunning for them anyway, as it was their statements that had him in for questioning in the first place, the family reasoned. So they made their decision.
Were the gardaí upfront with them about what lay ahead? “Well, I thought they were. We thought we would have full protection and they would make sure there would be guards wherever we wanted . . . But I’d never known anyone else involved in something like this. Who do you talk to? We didn’t realise how bad it was going to be, how intense and intrusive it would be. But we wanted to do it anyway.”
His voice trembles again as he sets Ryan’s shooting in the context of the boy’s tragic early life. At the age of three he had seen his mother die on the sofa after a brain haemorrhage. At 12, during an Irish holiday from Halifax with his father, Kenneth, Carmel’s brother, the boy watched Kenneth die from a long-term illness. Ryan – “a wonderful young fella” – became Steve and Carmel’s adopted son.
So, no, Steve Collins is not sorry for coming forward. “I did what I did for the family and for justice. Some people could take up an AK-47, but you don’t go that road. You do it the civilised way. But I didn’t expect to lose everything after that. I didn’t expect to lose a son. They took their eye off the ball. And my son got shot. If the protection was that good, that shouldn’t have happened . . . They were the experts. They’re the people with their finger on the pulse, with the informants, the people who should know what’s going on. When they tell me, ‘We just bring you in, and once you’re in there you’re safe,’ I have to take their word for it. Because that’s what they say. But they were wrong. They were wrong because my son was murdered at 12 o’clock in the day. The guards that are with us now are very good to us. They’re doing what they’re told to do, and they do it well. But it’s not enough. It’s just not enough.”
What would be enough? “Now we’re saturated – because mistakes were made . . . There’s 28 guards with us 24 hours a day: two with me, two with Steven, two with Ryan and a guard on the pub all the time.”
Unsurprisingly, their lives are fraying at the edges. It seems that, having achieved the legal changes, Steve Collins is now free to survey the wreckage of their lives. What he needs is an exit strategy from the businesses. He lists the worthies who have intoned that the State owes them a debt of gratitude, then wonders how and when the State proposes to pay that debt. The newly renovated pub on a “massive” site once worth about €4 million – and burnt to the ground in 2004 – still lies idle. “You wouldn’t get €500,000 for it tomorrow. But I’ve paid out over €800,000 to €900,000 in mortgage repayments on it over the six years.” Back in 2004 Collins applied for planning permission for the entire site, including shops and apartments, with the intention of recouping some value from the site, then stepping back from the business. It trundled through the system, and three different planners, for more than two and a half years, by which time, he says, they’d missed the boat. “That shouldn’t have happened. The Government should have fast-tracked it and helped us out.”
Five months ago, at a meeting with the Garda Commissioner, the Minister for Justice and Willie O’Dea, he asked if the State could buy out his Southill premises for inclusion in the regeneration scheme. “I’m in a catch-22. Who’s going to buy my pub? Every time the door opens, my son’s eyes are glued to it. That’s no way to live a life. I can’t see why they couldn’t take it in the regeneration. I wasn’t looking for something for nothing. I was looking for whatever the value of the pub was, to take it off me. As the State Solicitor Michael Murray said, the security of the State is the most important thing. Money shouldn’t come into it . . . I’ve done all the evaluations and sent them off. But nothing’s been done for us. We’re just being left there. We’ve done our bit now, and we’ve lost, lost, lost, all the way.”
As he talks his anger and frustration grow. “I haven’t got that off the Government,” he says, pointing at a coffee cup. “In all my travelling up to Dublin no one asked, Do you need petrol, a cup of coffee? Absolutely nothing. They said my son’s funeral would be paid for; they never paid for it. They told me I was entitled to that. Eighteen months on, nothing. Nothing. We’ve had no help to rebuild our lives.”
He is torn between admiration of Dermot Ahern for pushing through the anti-gang legislation and frustration that the Minister didn’t act, as promised, four years earlier and, perhaps, help save Roy’s life. “He told me he could have lost his job over this [legislation]. I said, I appreciate that, but it’s a little late – but maybe they will keep us alive.”
His frustration may yet find an outlet. He is constantly asked if he will enter politics. Right now he says he would “walk away” with an election in Limerick; “clinics” are already forming in his pub. “Yeah. You’d be tempted . . . I wouldn’t rule it out. I mean, what am I going to do in my life now? I get so angry. There are politicians up there who should have done more about this.”
Suddenly, his face softens. “You all right, love?” he asks as Carmel arrives , accompanied by Roy’s lovely, chatty, bright-eyed daughters. Ready for another away-day from Limerick.