The new John Gilligans

The crime scene John Gilligan knew in the 1990s is very different from today’s. A new generation of volatile young criminals is emerging

New order: John Gilligan leaving Portlaoise  Prison on Monday. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins

New order: John Gilligan leaving Portlaoise Prison on Monday. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins


When Martin Cahill, the gangland figure known as the General, was shot by the IRA in August 1994, there was no retaliation. At that time not even one of the biggest gangs in the State would take on the paramilitaries.

Almost 20 years later Alan Ryan, the leader of the Real IRA in Dublin, was ambushed and killed on the street in Clongriffin, on the north side of the city. Ryan had been a target because of his propensity for taxing with menaces some of the biggest crime gangs in Dublin, which are no longer afraid to stand up to paramilitary figures.

The frequency of gun murders since 2000 has far outstripped anything that went before. And the gunmen and their victims are getting younger. It is not uncommon now for men in their mid-20s to have murdered a number of people or to have survived several attempts on their own lives.

That level of gun violence, and a Garda now more successful than ever at tackling organised crime, have greatly shortened the reign of most gang leaders.

“The young fellas around today would eat John Gilligan without salt, and he’s going to find that out pretty quickly,” says a Garda source.

But has gangland changed so much?

The single biggest factor that has changed organised crime since Gilligan was jailed in 1996 is cocaine. As the drug went mainstream during the late 1990s, a generation of young criminals who were still in their teens when Gilligan went to jail saw the money to be made in cocaine and set about working the market.

Criminals of Gilligan’s era normally began their crime careers when they were children, with small thefts, and over many years became more involved in robberies before establishing themselves as armed robbers, drug dealers or both.

In his 20s and 30s Gilligan robbed commercial premises. In November 1993 he was released from prison, having served time for handling stolen goods, and he set about building the biggest drug-trafficking rings, dealing only in cannabis, that Ireland had seen – until the murder of Veronica Guerin, in June 1996, led to unprecedented Garda attention on his gang.

The serving of an apprenticeship such as Gilligan’s meant criminals were generally older and more experienced by the time they became involved in high-stakes drug dealing. But the financial return from cocaine from about 2000 was irresistible to young criminals; many in their late teens and early 20s jumped straight into dealing drugs.

In recent years major drug gangs have been populated and led by men in their late teens and early 20s. “They were more hot-headed than the older criminals, because they were younger, and a lot of them were cocaine users themselves,” says one Garda source.

“They’ve tended to lock horns with their rivals over personal issues, and they’d lose sight of keeping the head down and making money. The fighting was as big a part of being in a gang as the moneymaking.”

This led to a decade of feuds in Dublin and Limerick, with at least four gangs in the capital and one in Limerick having killed between 15 and 20 people each since 2000.

This has all occurred as the drug economy first boomed, then crashed, then grew again. Garda drug seizures fell from more than €100 million in 2007 and 2008 to €28 million in 2010. They have risen again, however, to €115 million last year.

The number of people shot dead is likely to be in the mid to high teens, rather than in the low 20s, by the end of the year. Much of the feuding linked to the cocaine trade has also fallen, as many of the gang leaders have been killed and others jailed.

Some have also fled Ireland and settled abroad, mostly in southern Spain, from where they supply their contacts in Ireland. “They feel they can spend the money they earn, buying flash cars, living in nice villas and apartments and generally living it up,” says a Garda source.

“They can still make money in Ireland, but it’s harder to spend it, because once that’s noticed the [Criminal Assets Bureau] would be all over them,” says the source, referring to the specialist unit that was introduced in response to the Guerin murder, and of which John Gilligan is a principal target.

Ongoing feud
But all is not quiet in gangland. A feud is ongoing between the remnants of the Real IRA, which is now part of a New IRA alliance, and the gangs from which it had been trying to extort money in the final years of Alan Ryan’s life.

Another criminal, based in a middle-class suburb of north Dublin, is regarded as perhaps the biggest gang leader in the city. Now a target for the paramilitaries looking to avenge Ryan’s death, which he planned and paid for, the man recently installed bulletproof glass at his home.

Also new is the presence of eastern European mafia gangs in Dublin and the regions, the move of Chinese triads into prostitution, and the dominance of Chinese and Vietnamese gangs in the booming cannabis grow-house sector.

Many Irish organised-crime gangs have returned to staging robberies like those Gilligan once carried out. The biggest drive against crime in the past two or three years has been Operation Fiacla, aimed at burglars. Its key targets are the organised gangs that select commercial premises to rob and often travel across the country to carry out those raids.

Other sources acknowledge that the Garda was ill equipped to deal with gang leaders such as Gilligan in the 1990s, and that some officers feared Gilligan. But the force is better able to tackle organised crime now, backed by stronger anti-gang laws and a trend towards longer sentences for those convicted.

With some of the gangs that ruled many of the suburbs of Dublin and Limerick now less dominant, the names of new, younger criminals have begun to crop up in conversations with Garda sources.

“There is a new wave coming through now, to try and cash in when [recreational drug users] start spending properly again,” says a senior detective. The same detective says the newer gang members are likely to demonstrate the immaturity and hot-headedness that led to the feuding in the 2000s.

“We are seeing a lot more pipe-bomb attacks in the past few years, and there are still plenty of weapons out there,” says the source, who adds that the situation is not going to calm down soon.

In 1996, the year Gilligan went to prison, Army bomb-disposal teams dealt with just one viable improvised explosive device. In 2012 they dealt with 96 viable devices, and so far this year they have dealt with 70.

The number of firearms seized in 1996, when the Gilligan gang imploded, reached 696. That statistic peaked in 2008, when 971 firearms were seized. The number of guns seized last year was 696.

“Some of [the new breed of criminal] are keen to get going and use [weapons] like the young fellas who started coming through in the late 1990s,” says one senior source.

“When young fellas become involved, they’re jockeying for position and trying to prove themselves. To be seen to be able and willing to shoot somebody, or to get someone else to do it, would establish them as serious players.”

Another officer agrees: “When you had all the madness in places such as Finglas and Crumlin and Drimnagh, it was with fellas who were still in their 20s. They were new to organised crime, and they were new even [to adulthood]. And there is that thing with young people in any walk of life: they’re desperate to prove themselves. They’re in a hurry.”

“Gilligan will be walking back into that environment where the age [profile] of the people with the guns is much lower than he would have been used to and where they’re more impulsive and they don’t think things through the way older heads would.”

‘Big personality’
A prisoner who spent a portion of his sentence on the E1 gangland landing at Portlaoise Prison while Gilligan served his term says that Gilligan “liked to be the big personality” on the landing.

The former prisoner also says it is possible that any disputes from Gilligan’s 17 years in jail could resurface in the form of an attack against him now that he has been freed.

“It wouldn’t be the first time something that happened inside spilled over [to the outside world]. And there’s plenty of fellas getting attacked, stabbed, all that, in jail over things going on the outside. I’ll say one thing for him: he’s not stupid. But he’s not bulletproof, either.”

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