Drug dealers dicing with death
Senior Garda sources have said it is too early to hazard a guess as to who shot Thomas Byrne as he sat drinking with friends on the pavement outside O'Neill's pub in Summerhill on Sunday evening. Byrne had accumulated a considerable number of enemies in his short career as a small-time drug dealer from the north inner city.
The possibility that he was killed by the Provisional IRA was not being discounted. A number of IRA figures are living in the area and the organisation has been targeting drug dealers in Dublin.
On April 18th, gardai in south Dublin prevented an IRA attempt to kill a local criminal figure, Seamus Hogan.
A loaded handgun was recovered and in raids on two flats gardai found documents containing the addresses and movements of Dublin criminals. Some of the IRA documents were found in a flat in Buckingham Street only a short distance from where Byrne was shot.
Byrne's shooting was also a "professional" killing, according to gardai. It was almost certainly carried out by a gunman who had killed before. He walked quietly up to Byrne, shot him in the head and withdrew quickly and without fuss. One other man was slightly injured, possibly by a splintered bullet or ricochet, but there was no attempt to target any one other than Byrne.
However, gardai say this need not necessarily mean the IRA was responsible. There have been some similarly "professional" killings carried out by Dublin criminals in recent years.
The latest spate of killings is comparable to the outbreak of gang-related violence in Dublin between the murder of the leading criminal figure, Martin Cahill, in August 1994 and the murder of the crime reporter, Veronica Guerin, in June 1996.
In that period there were 11 murders by gangs, and some by the IRA. That spate of murders came to an end when the Government directed a major Garda campaign against organised crime in the city. This resulted in the dismantling of the gang which killed Ms Guerin.
In the past 18 months, however, there has been evidence of increased organised crime with an associated increase in killings and gun attacks. Gardai believe that a proportion of this violence is being stimulated by a number of drug gangs trying to capitalise on the vacuum left in the city by the dismantling of the gang which killed Ms Guerin.
One gang, based in the south inner city, has been of particular concern. It carried out a number of big armed robberies, including the raid on a security van in Dalkey in January last year.
It then bought large amounts of drugs on the Continent in conjunction with criminals based in the south of England. A consignment of cannabis and ecstasy worth millions of pounds which was seized in Amsterdam in March belonged to this gang.
There has been some 17 murders related to crime or republican paramilitary activity in the past 20 months. Most of these are seen as the result of new, often young, criminal figures establishing their authority on their drug-dealing "turfs" and disputes between drug gangs over control of turfs.
OF the latest spate of murders, only one or two are ascribed to the IRA, including that of Joseph Foran in Finglas in February. He was shot dead by a lone gunman who fired from close range as he sat in his car with his girlfriend. Gardai said this also had the hallmarks of a "professional" killing. The Garda Forensic Bureau had no ballistic records of the gun having been used before.
Another murder ascribed to the IRA was that of Gerard Moran, like Thomas Byrne a small-time drug dealer from the Sheriff Street area. Moran was shot dead in Drumcondra in November 1998 after becoming embroiled in a dispute with local members of the IRA.
The IRA's shootings of drug dealers in Dublin is an extension of its practice in Northern Ireland. Since the first IRA ceasefire in 1994, the IRA has killed at least 10 men on suspicion of drug dealing. The last two were Thomas Fegan and Paul Downey, both shot in Newry about a year ago. Previously, the IRA shot dead another of Fegan's associates, Brendan Campbell, in Belfast in February 1998.
After that murder, the British and Irish governments imposed a two-week ban on Sinn Fein from the political process leading to the Belfast Agreement. There has been no sanction on the republican movement despite recent involvement in killings and so-called "punishment" shootings on both sides of the Border.
The other recent murder in Dublin was that of Patrick Neville, another small-time criminal and drug dealer in the St Michael's estate in Inchicore.
Neville was part of a gang which abducted and murdered a young INLA member, Patrick Campbell, in Walkinstown last October. Campbell died from lacerations he received when struck with a machete.
Gardai investigating the case quickly became aware that the INLA was seeking to exact revenge. It is now suspected that Neville's associates on the night they abducted Campbell may have helped to set him up for assassination.
Gardai say the INLA is also suspected of firing a number of shots at the front of a house in Old County Road, Crumlin, at 1 a.m on Sunday night. No one was injured.
There was another shooting in Dublin at the weekend. Two shotgun blasts were aimed at the front of a house in the East Wall on Saturday night. However, local gardai say this is not related to paramilitary or organised criminal activity. It is thought more likely it stemmed from a local family dispute which escalated from a street fight between local teenagers.