Nora Owen remembers exactly what she was doing when she heard Veronica Guerin had been murdered. The former minister for justice had just returned to a New York hotel room after meeting with US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. While preparing a speech for the United Nations on international drug crime in the room, Owens learned that the Sunday Independent journalist had been shot dead as she sat in her car in traffic on the Naas dual carriageway.
Shortly afterwards, Owens had to go to the UN building on East 42nd Street, though her mind had moved beyond her speech.
“[It] was very, very difficult,” she remembers. The difficulty was worsened by the fact that she had known Guerin well.
The two had met when Guerin was secretary for Fianna Fáil’s New Ireland Forum delegation in the 1980s, while Owens had visited her in hospital after she was shot in the leg a year before. “I was absolutely devastated,” she recalls.
Owen says she understood “instantly” the political implications of the murder, just two weeks after Garda Jerry McCabe was shot dead by the IRA in Adare, Co Limerick.
The public demanded action and believed the government had not done enough to curb organised crime, as was shown when a man verbally abused Owen at Guerin’s funeral three days later. The man told the minister she was to blame for the journalist’s death before being told to go away by a newspaper photographer. “It was a very cruel thing to say at a funeral,” Owen said.
Afterwards, change happened, and quickly – including the creation of the Criminal Assets Bureau and the use of the Special Criminal Court to tackle organised crime.
"That a journalist should be callously murdered in the line of duty is an attack on democracy, because it is an attack on one of the pillars of our democracy," taoiseach John Bruton told the Dáil on the evening of the murder.
The establishment of the Cab allowed the State to seize criminals’ assets even if they had not been convicted of a crime, while mandatory minimum 10-year sentences were brought in for some drug offences.
Other measures – which helped to dismantle the operations of John Gilligan, who was tried for, but acquitted of Guerin's murder – included tougher bail laws and the State's first witness protection programme.
All of the laws brought in then – some much criticised by Amnesty International and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, even the United Nations – remain in place. The scope of some, indeed, has expanded.
The murders of Veronica Guerin and Jerry McCabe were a “catalyst for a lot of things” which ordinarily would have run into human rights objections, says Owen. “People wanted somebody to blame.
“At really painful times like that, people sort of forget we are bound by the rule of law and I can’t just tell the gardaí, ‘Just go pick them up, I don’t care what you charge them with. Charge then with jaywalking or whatever.’”
Within weeks, the Oireachtas passed laws allowing assets seizures. The Cab was set up within four months of Guerin's killing. Usually, such a move would have taken three years, she believed.
Previously, the State was able to seize a criminal’s ill-gotten gains, but only after conviction. Now, it just had to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that a suspect’s assets likely came from crime.
Fachtna Murphy, then the superintendent of Dún Laoghaire Garda station, became the Cab's first head. Like Owen, he also knew Guerin, having met her during a fraud investigation.
“It was a sad month,” recalls Murphy, later Garda commissioner between 2007 and 2010. “There was a perception that people were getting away with it, that they were flaunting their wealth and giving the two fingers to the [State].”
Murphy and the bureau's chief legal officer Barry Galvin assembled a core group around them, but they were in "uncharted territory" since no model existed anywhere else. "There was no handbook," Murphy said.
Legal challenges to the Cab were frequent. Some, such as those lodged by Gilligan, went to the Supreme Court. For the most part, however, judges upheld the extraordinary powers.
Early on it was "very easy to identify targets", partly because newspapers were highlighting criminals' unexplained wealth daily. Valuable information, too, came from the late Dublin Central Independent TD Tony Gregory.
“He would come to us and say, ‘Look you’ve got to do something,’” says Murphy, who quickly went after one of Gregory’s constituents, Derek “Maradona” Dunne, a former League of Ireland footballer turned major drugs dealer.
Dunne had a plasma TV, when such things were practically unknown, along with a jacuzzi and "other fine features of living". Dunne fled to the Netherlands where he was later murdered.
The Cab was aggressive. Officers seized not just houses, but even social welfare payments. Many criminals fled abroad. “[They] were more conscious of the necessity to hide their money and hide their assets,” says Murphy.
The aggression carried risks. Garda members of the bureau were used to criminal threats, but Revenue colleagues were not. One had to be relocated because of the dangers.
Today, the Cab is led by Chief Supt Michael Gubbins. "Other countries have come to look at the model to replicate it. From that point of view, it is a great success," he tells The Irish Times.
Though the Cab only has to prove that assets are illegal “on the balance of probabilities”, it has always tried to “get as much evidence as possible”, Murphy says. In the years since, it has generated less controversy than other 1996 measures.
The refocusing of the Special Criminal Court away from subversive offences such as IRA membership and other terrorist offences onto organised crime has, though, led to frequent outcries. More and more, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has decided jury courts are not capable of dealing with gangland criminals who, while not linked to paramilitaries, are ruthless enough to try to intimidate jurors.
Veronica Guerin's murder "normalised" the State's increasing reach, says barrister Alice Harrison, who recently wrote a text on the operation of the Special Criminal Court.
The court was able to draw adverse inference if a suspect stays silent during Garda interviews and to hear opening evidence from chief superintendents on suspects’ membership of illegal organisations.
“The murder started this process of the State normalising all these draconian powers, the State increasing their control,” Harrison says. In 2015, a second Special Criminal Court was created, almost half a century after the first.
It has jailed four members of the gang behind Guerin's murder: Patrick "Dutchy" Holland, Paul Ward, Brian Meehan and Gilligan (Meehan is the only one still convicted of the actual murder; Ward was convicted but this was later overturned on appeal).
More recently, it helped dismantle the Irish branch of the Kinahan organised crime gang. Today, 94 per cent of cases before it end in conviction, about double the rate in jury courts.
Its success, however, is beside the point, argues Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, who says the use of the court can be "arbitrary" and "incoherent".
There has never been compelling evidence that convictions could not have been won by other means, he says. Anonymous jurors, or having juries view the proceedings remotely have been successful elsewhere, he said.
Despite the drop-off in subversive activity (if not organised crime activity), there is little sign of the Special Criminal Court going anywhere. Equally, there is little sign the public want it abolished.
A 2016 poll found 67 per cent of people favoured retaining the court, a figure which has likely only increased as the Hutch-Kinahan death count rose. “At the moment, the appetite to get rid of it has just dissipated,” said Harrison.
Sinn Féin has always opposed it. Last year, it stopped calling for its abolition, instead calling for a “review”. This week, its TDs left the Dáil chamber before a vote on its renewal. A review is, in fact, under way, but will not recommend abolition.
For Herrick, an even bigger misstep after 1996 was the 1999 introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing, strengthened over the following decade.
The law mandated that anyone caught with £10,000 (€13,000) of drugs should receive a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, save in “exceptional and specific circumstances”.
In practice, the courts have interpreted “exceptional and specific circumstances” broadly. During 2017/18, just 7 per cent of offenders received 10 years or more.
However, there is evidence that judges are becoming more comfortable about imposing the mandatory minimum; between 2011 and 2015, that same figure was 3 per cent.
Critics, including Herrick, believe it unfairly targets low-level “mules” forced to hold drugs, and that sentences have had a “very questionable” impact on the availability of illegal drugs.