Modern gangland crime in the State is a world that journalist Veronica Guerin, who was murdered 25 years ago on Saturday, would not recognise, says former detective Brian Sherry, who saw its birth during a 30-year career.
Sherry was a detective inspector in Blanchardstown, Dublin, when gangland killings first escalated. During five years of mayhem in "K District", across north and west Dublin, he saw more violent death than he had in his previous service.
When "The K" erupted in gangland feuding in the early 2000s – just like Limerick and several parts of Dublin – Sherry and his colleagues were under immense pressure as his division lost officers redeployed to Limerick.
“At the time they were sending an enormous amount of guards from Dublin down to Limerick even though we were being flogged to death up in the K,” Sherry says of the years he spent in Blanchardstown between 2002 and 2007.
The redeployment caused resentment in “the K”, especially since Limerick’s murder rate was lower than what they were dealing with. And so he wrote a report about it for his superiors, expressing his views.
But when the then Garda commissioner Noel Conroy and minister for justice Michael McDowell called to Blanchardstown one day in 2005, Sherry was pushed forward to brief them about local successes against the criminals.
"I was halfway way through my (presentation) and next thing there's a door knock: 'Brian, you're required in Finglas, a body has been found'. McDowell was 'tut, tut', I think he must have thought it was some kind of set-up," says Sherry.
“I told them ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to leave, gentlemen’. There was body alright; a poor unfortunate with four holes in his head,” he goes on, the third gangland murder Blanchardstown-based officers had seen in 10 days.
His conversation is peppered with the names of now-dead gangland criminals, Eamon Dunne (34), Shane Coates (34), brothers Stephen (27) and Bernard Sugg (23), brothers Andrew (30) and Mark Glennon (32) and Marlo Hyland (36). And they are just a few.
Celtic Tiger money
The first “explosion” in the drugs trade came in the early 2000s when the State was “awash” with Celtic Tiger money, ushering in a new underworld that has endured, and will thrive again with gusto once the Covid-19 pandemic passes.
So many criminals were needed that young teenagers bypassed traditional routes into criminality – street crime and burglaries – and instead moved straight into holding, transporting and selling drugs.
“Cocaine was the big one, it was everywhere,” he recalls, adding that within five or six years after Guerin’s murder the drugs trade in parts of Dublin and Limerick was ruled by men in their early to mid-20s.
Some made more progress in five years than John Gilligan had in 25 years of crime. With status came wealth and guns. Because they were young and immature, and many were addicts themselves, guns were used to settle even minor disputes, starting murderous feuds.
Every shred of evidence since then tells the same story; the drugs trade is driven by prosperity, not poverty, and is populated by young men on the ground who are far more violent than the older criminals of the 1980s and 1990s.
In the 1990s there were usually a handful of gangland murders each year, though not all of them were shootings. In 1996, the year Guerin was killed, there were eight. In the decade that followed the number jumped to over 20 annually.
In 1996 the Garda recorded 3,953 drugs offences. By 2008 it had jumped to 23,354. After the 2008 crash it fell away, before rebounding since 2015. Last year there were 23,240 recorded drug crimes – a figure only beaten by the 2008 high.
The next drugs boom is already under way, says a senior Garda officer involved in gangland crime investigations – one that will be heavily controlled by a relatively small number of veteran criminals who have fled the Republic.
Identifying John Cunningham (69), Christy Kinahan (64) and George Mitchell (70), the officer says they have supplied large parts of the Irish drugs trade from continental Europe or the Middle East, exerting great influence on younger charges in the State.
Freed from jail just over 20 years ago, Kinahan went to Spain and set about supplying wholesale to a number of countries, including Ireland. According to Cab High Court evidence, his sons Daniel (44) and Christopher Jnr (38) now run the cartel he created.
Cunningham masterminded the 1986 kidnapping of Jennifer Guinness, the wife of a wealthy banker, and has worked closely with Kinahan.
Mitchell, also known as the Penguin, was one of the first major Irish dealers to set up abroad.
“Look at all the developments over the past 20 years or so; cheap air travel, mobile phones, the internet, online banking, cryptocurrency; that has all played into the hands of these guys. It’s never been easier for them to do business,” the source says.
“We talk about the size of the [Kinahan] cartel and how much money it has and that is unprecedented – we saw nothing like that in Veronica’s day. But what people don’t talk about is how the cartel has never had a problem finding guys willing to do the shootings.
“And for me that’s the big change; the numbers of men in Dublin in particular who’d be willing to murder someone for money. You had a handful of them only 20 years ago. Now young fellas see it as a badge of honour to kill someone.
"They do it to earn their way into that world; waves of gunmen being sent after the same target several times. There's nine men serving sentences now for trying to murder Patsy Hutch [brother of Gerry Hutch, the Monk]," he said.
Gangland killings have faded in recent years but they will return, says another senior garda: "We'd a feud in north Dublin just before the pandemic and four or five guys were killed in a few months; not much more than kids," he said of a dispute based mainly in Coolock.
“It’s been quieter over the past year, but that’s only a lull because Covid made it harder to move around. When you see the level of drugs and cash being seized over the last 18 months or so, you know the shootings won’t be too far behind.”
Illustrating the expansion under way, gardaí seized €4 million in one seizure alone last year, and that did not belong to the Kinahans. “Everyone has been talking about the Kinahans, but there’s lots of groups out there now who’ve expanded,” says another senior officers.
The expansion of others has taken place at a time when the Kinahans and their allies in Dublin have been under Garda pressure after the Regency Hotel attack in 2016 when gunmen opened fire at a boxing tournament weigh-in.
That attack was aimed at Daniel Kinahan. It accelerated the Kinahan-Hutch feud, which has now claimed 18 lives. Many of the Kinahans' local leaders, middle managers and foot soldiers are now in prison or have fled, creating opportunities for others.
Despite Covid-19 restrictions for much of last year, the value of drugs and cash seized by the Garda's Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau increased to new highs of €36.5 million and €8.1 million respectively. By comparison, €21.3 million of drugs and €2.5 million of cash were seized in 2019. The trend is accelerating this year, with the bureau seizing drugs valued at €27.7 million and €3.6 million in cash in the first quarter alone.
John O’Brien, a former Garda detective chief superintendent, said the drugs trade was “a virus for which there’s no vaccine”. Just as Guerin’s murder had jolted the State into action in 1996, so too had the Regency Hotel attack 20 years later, he said.
The Garda and other State agencies gained the upper hand in the years after both, but the gangland cycle is a repetitive one and it will never be conquered, adds O’Brien. The best we can hope for is containment.
“When you get on top you displace the head guys and then others come up through the ranks. If you look at it in maybe 10-year cycles; we have had the same pattern in the 10 years to 2010 and then from 2010 to 2020.
“There’s nothing surer than if you and I did this interview again in 2030 we’ll be talking about the same thing happening. It’s a never-ending cycle because of the iron law of supply and demand and the power that drugs hold over people”.