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Dublin Report When a small-time hoodlum hits the big time

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Johh Kelly

Veronica Guerin was a cheerful young mother who came into journalism through a most circuitous route. Whatever about her strange professional antecedents, which included a lengthy stint within the Fianna Fail bureaucracy, the fact is that she became one of the most determined and successful journalists in Ireland.

She achieved her notoriety catching scoops after scoop in an up-front, confrontational fashion. She simply went directly to the source and asked the questions, however awkward and aggressive it may have seemed at the time. While she made friends readily, she never failed to create enemies as well, and one of them shot her to death while she waited for a light to change on a Dublin highway.

One of those enemies, and the man likely responsible for her death, John Gilligan, was a little like Guerin in the sense that he also spent most of his life on the fringe of his real professional ability. As a result, success came to him relatively late in his life.

But then, that’s the way it often is in the world where he lived, the world of the small-time criminal who was always searching for the "Big One," the golden pot at the end of the crooked rainbow.

He was only 18 when he was first charged in court with larceny and was given probation. A string of relatively petty convictions followed, most involving larceny or receiving. He was just a two-bit Ballyfermot born thug.

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That was how he happened to meet Martin Cahill, the vicious gangster who prided himself on running Dublin’s south side criminal fraternity.

Like Cahill, Gilligan was a teetotaler and neither touched the drugs they finally began to trade in massive quantities.

Both were well known to the police. They had taken part in armed robberies. Gilligan was very much the second runner when it came to Cahill.

Cahill, who lived in a luxury home in Cowper Downs, secluded in Rathfarnham, was clever, daring and downright lucky. In the criminal world, his most successful stroke was the robbery of much of the famed Alfred Beit collection from Russborough House in County Wicklow in 1986.

It was one of the most spectacular robberies ever carried out in Ireland. Its infamy was probably its undoing, however. Protracted attempts to sell the goods on the international art black market failed. Dealers simply found the canvases too hot to handle.

Police tracked down and jailed most of Cahill’s gang.

When Cahill was first approached by Gilligan, he was looking for something else to do, anything other than armed robbery. He had become too well known and he was subject to continuous surveillance by the police.

While Cahill was flash, Gilligan was much more careful. It was later, only after Cahill had set him up with a loan in the business of drugs smuggling, that he displayed his wealth in a dangerously provocative way.

Gilligan had forged links with former paramilitaries in Portlaoise Prison, members of the Irish National Liberation Army, who had become major drugs suppliers.

Their shipment route originated in Morocco and ran through the Dutch port of Amsterdam.

It was a well-organized pipeline. The drugs were shipped by sea, air and road. They ended up in seemingly clean warehouses, some of them in Dublin, others in the UK or in Northern Ireland.

It is a vicious, no-holds-barred trade. Some of the sporadic killings that are carried out regularly in Ireland have their origins in that time. There are always scores to settle and debts to be paid.

Gilligan organized one of the most effective drug rings in Europe on a single-cell unit, very like the Provisional IRA. None but the most trusted ever got the full picture. Potential informants or infiltrators never had a chance.

Nobody really knows how much Cahill invested in the Gilligan gang. All that is known, according to the evidence that convicted Cahill on serious drugs charges but was not sufficient to nail him with the big one — the murder of Veronica Guerin, is that one of his principal cronies visited Amsterdam regularly, always with £10,000 in cash.

Gilligan finally got to live in the style to which he had always wished to become accustomed. His wife and he bought an equestrian center, no less, in Kildare. It is valued at £5 million but would probably sell for much more.

After his smuggling activities came to light, the Criminal Assets Bureau, a combined task force including Customs and Excise officers, as well as the police, seized the house and land.

His former wife, Geraldine Dunne, also from Ballyfermot, vainly tried to get it back.

Now, ironically enough, there are plans to turn it into a drug rehabilitation center.

The circle is almost complete.

Cahill never did get his loan back from Gilligan. Instead, he was blasted to a gory pulp as he sat in his car in Ranelagh in 1994. The IRA admitted it had killed him. But the consensus now is that it was a professional hit carried out by an INLA member from Dublin’s southside, a contract killing.

When you think about it, Gilligan had a lot to gain. He never paid the debt to Cahill. And he took over the entire smuggling business, earning an estimated £34 million within a two-year period.

Almost all of the Gilligan gang are now behind bars. Their leader got four concurrent 28-year sentences in Dublin’s Criminal Court last week. The evidence was not sufficient to convict him of the Guerin murder, the judges concluded.

This was because it was based on the testimony of one man, Russell Warren, his former accomplice. The court decided that it was not sufficient to convict because it was not corroborated. It also deemed him to be an undependable witness.

Nevertheless, appeals apart, John Gilligan will spend most of the rest of his life in jail. Dublin will breathe easier for that. And if there are ghosts, there is one ghost that will be happy, the ghost of Veronica Guerin. She certainly did not die in vain.

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