The murder of Keith Branigan at a caravan park near Clogherhead, Co Louth, on Tuesday represents a serious escalation in an already dangerous feud between rival drug-dealing gangs based in Drogheda.
Coming after 13 months of violence, the 29-year-old’s shooting was the first fatality in a drugs turf war that has turned personal. It also saw the gang that has been losing ground in the feud, and falling victim to most of the violence, striking back with the most serious attack to date.
Other gang feuds in Ireland have raged for up to a decade after passing points of no return, and Branigan’s killing is viewed as such a point in the Drogheda dispute. Here is how other recent conflicts compare.
The beginning of the decade-long feud between factions in the neighbouring Dublin suburbs of Crumlin and Drimnagh is very similar to that of the Drogheda dispute. After a long period of tit-for-tat non-fatal attacks – involving petrol bombings, shootings and pipe bombs – the dispute moved up a level when the first man died.
Declan Gavin (21) was wrongly blamed by the other faction for supplying information to the Garda that led to the seizure of drugs and the imprisonment of two men. He was stabbed to death by gang leader Brian Rattigan (38) in a Crumlin fast food outlet in August 2002; the killer's conviction was later reduced from murder to manslaughter.
Freddie Thompson (39) was the leader of the other faction. Some 11 months after Declan Gavin's killing, Brian Rattigan's brother Joseph (18) was shot dead in revenge.
Once each group had killed a member of the other faction, both sides were locked into a drive for revenge and to kill or be killed. All the while they were competing for control in the drugs trade – in Dublin’s inner west initially, but extending nationally in time.
The feud raged for a decade, with 16 men losing their lives in the violence. Three were shot dead in a three-day period. The Thompson gang emerged “victorious”, after the jailing of Brian Rattigan left his group leaderless and open to an onslaught from the better resourced Thompson group.
During the course of the feud, the Thompson group became Christy Kinahan’s Dublin-based unit.
The men who emerged with the upper hand from the Crumlin-Drimnagh feud were never caught for those feud crimes
The balance of the Drogheda feud is now very similar to that point in the Crumlin-Drimnagh dispute. One of the factions, though coming off worse until this week, is more experienced and better resourced, as its ability to kill Keith Branigan on Tuesday demonstrated.
That group is also emboldened by the knowledge that some of the leading figures in the other gang are under intense pressure from the Garda. Like Brian Rattigan in the Crumlin-Drimnagh feud, they have had a hands-on role in some serious crimes.
If they are successfully prosecuted, an older more experienced group would be left leading one side of the feud, against a younger side whose leadership would be in jail.
The men who emerged with the upper hand from the Crumlin-Drimnagh feud were never caught for those feud crimes. Instead they grew stronger and continue to pose a threat to public safety.
The Limerick feud
The Limerick feud began with the murder of Kieran Keane (36), shot dead in January 2002. He controlled much of the Limerick drugs trade at the time, and the McCarthy-Dundon gang killed him in a bid to take his drugs supply business.
Like the current feud in Drogheda, the Limerick conflict generated significant negative media coverage. Gangland killings and gun feuds are not unexpected events in the greater Dublin area. Outside the capital they are much more unusual and so garner blanket coverage in the press.
As in Limerick, the Drogheda feud is unfolding between key players from a small geographic area, adding to the pressure on the Garda to get it under control. The public perception is that a smaller area should be easier to control.
However, almost every feud over the past 20 years says the opposite is true: the closer the criminals are to each other, the more extreme and protracted the violence.
When it became clear in Limerick that the feud was entrenched and driven by hatred, the Garda in the city was given more resources. And though the murders – at least 13 – continued for the best part of a decade, the increase in police resources had the desired effect, eventually taking down the McCarthy-Dundon gang.
That gang had instigated much of the violence and had even killed Limerick father of two Roy Collins (35) in 2009, because he gave evidence in court against one of the gang members: gang and feud principal Wayne McCarthy Dundon.
When Dundon was jailed for crimes including the murder of Roy Collins, and his closest associates imprisoned, the feud had effectively run its course.
The McCarthys and Dundons stopped only when the gardaí jailed them – something the local community and elected representatives in Co Louth seem acutely aware.
The origin of the ongoing Kinahan-Hutch feud was the murder of Dubliner Gary Hutch (34) in Spain in September 2015 – revenge for trying to shoot dead Daniel Kinahan. While that is accurate in hindsight, in itself that murder did not start the feud. The Kinahan cartel had murdered many other men before Gary Hutch and no retaliatory feuds had resulted.
The difference in this dispute was an event six months after Gary Hutch’s death: the attack by the Hutch gang at the Regency Hotel, north Dublin, in February 2016.
It was not the initial murder of Gary Hutch that set this feud in motion but his associates' spectacular strike back
Associates of Gary Hutch stormed the building looking for Daniel Kinahan to kill. He was at a boxing tournament weigh-in when the gang, disguised as gardaí and carrying AK47s, burst in. Kinahan escaped, but Dublin drug dealer David Byrne (34) was shot dead.
The Regency attack was significant in that it was an attempt to kill one of the leaders of the Kinahan cartel that controlled the flow of drugs into the Republic. It also resulted in the murder of a brother of Liam Byrne (38), the man who effectively ran the Kinahan outfit in Ireland.
Neither the international Kinahan cartel nor its Dublin unit, the Liam Byrne organised crime group, could tolerate the murder of a brother and brazen challenge to their superiority. And so an onslaught of repeated violence has followed: 18 men dead so far, almost all killed by the Kinahan faction.
It was not the initial murder of Gary Hutch that set this feud in motion but his associates’ spectacular strike back.
In the Drogheda feud, the murder of Keith Branigan represents an extreme blow to a gang that believes itself stronger than its rival group. Branigan’s killing is likely to fuel repeated revenge attacks.
Another parallel with the Kinahan-Hutch feud is that the cartel’s Irish unit is the same group that effectively won out in the Crumlin-Drimnagh feud – led then by Freddy Thompson and now by Liam Byrne. Its leadership emerged from the Crumlin-Drimnagh feud without facing justice and went on to become a powerful section of an international cartel now waging the bloodiest gangland conflict Ireland has seen.
In Drogheda, a leading figure in the gang that killed Keith Branigan has also emerged from years of drug dealing and feuding – during which he was linked to three murders – without facing justice for his most serious crimes. And now he is engaged in feuding on a new front, bringing all his previous experience to bear.