Pubdate: Sun, 25 Jun 2006
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Edition: Ireland
Copyright: 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Matt Cooper
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Heroin)


The police and political response to the murder of the journalist and
mother Veronica Guerin - whose 10th anniversary falls tomorrow -
resulted in only limited success. Despite a vast investigation, only
one of the many involved was convicted, and even that single
conviction may be overturned.

Although a raft of legislation was passed in the immediate aftermath
of the journalist's death, the number of so-called gangland murders
has since increased, and the amount of illegal drugs sold and consumed
has multiplied.

We are not just back to where we were 10 years ago, when they promised
that this type of thing would no longer be tolerated. Things appear to
be significantly worse.

So far this year 13 people have been murdered as a result of organised
crime. In the two years up to Guerin's murder, there were 11 "gangland

In July 1996, there was an enormous demand for action from the
Rainbow government of the day. The Guerin murder generated enormous
media publicity because one of their own had been slain. But the
horror was more widespread, because it seemed that the criminals were
moving on from killing each other - which nobody worried too much
about - to killing ordinary decent folk.

There was just the slightest feeling of deja vu last week, following
the slaying of a 22-year-old Dublin father, James Perdue, in Coolock
on Monday night. He was the sixth person to be murdered in the north
Dublin suburb this year. Again the media outcry, the demand for more
legislation and garda resources, the criticism of the government for
letting the carnage continue. So why, a decade later, is the cycle
endlessly repeating?

The public demanded not just retribution for Guerin's murder, not just
that her killers be found and imprisoned, but that others be dissuaded
from acting in the same way. Measures had to be taken to ensure that
crime would not bring about financial riches, and that the
consequences of capture would be severe.

Some retribution against Guerin's suspected killers was secured, but
in a most unsatisfactory manner. In convicting two men, the state
relied on the uncorroborated "supergrass" evidence of a deeply
unpleasant individual, Charles Bowden. He supplied the gun that was
used to shoot her, but the state gave him immunity in return for
evidence against others he said were involved in the crime. He is now
living at our expense elsewhere in the world. It is a criminal offence
to try to locate him.

Brian Meehan and Paul Ward were convicted of the murder. Ward's
conviction was overturned because of garda malpractice in taking his
statement. Meehan is appealing and is confident that it will be
overturned because of the reliance on Bowden's evidence.

Meanwhile, the cannabis dealer John Gilligan - who admitted that he
was the main suspect for the murder - was found not guilty, and
convicted instead of drug trafficking. Patrick Holland denied that he
was responsible for the murder, and he too was convicted of drug
offences only.

This all raised serious questions about the gardai's competency and
the practices they used when the pressure was on. But they were spared
scrutiny because of the public's apparent satisfaction with the
outcome of their endeavours. The end had justified the means.

Political measures to protect the public against further outrages were
contained in swiftly introduced legislation. The establishment of the
Criminal Assets Bureau may well be the Rainbow's most enduring
achievement, because it has allowed the state to seize the property
and possessions of those it suspects of crime and who cannot account
for their wealth.

Back in 1996 we were promised 600 more gardai on the streets, more
prison places, more judges. We were told of a "civilian-isation"
programme by which more non-gardai would take over clerical and
administrative duties, to free up officers for "real" police work.
This government is still talking of doing much the same.

A decade ago Bertie Ahern, in opposition, also made promises, only
some of which he implemented on taking power. A lack of prison spaces
means previously convicted suspects still regularly get bail when
accused of new crimes. Judges often ignore the 10-year minimum
sentence for people caught in possession of drugs with a street value
of UKP10,000 or more.

Ten years on, greater garda activity and more legislation is being
promised to deal with an apparently greater threat to public safety.
There is to be a mandatory 10-year sentence for the possession of
firearms, wider powers of detention, and a gun amnesty.

The public seems to have become either defeatist or apathetic. Stories
about the activities of mafia-type drug dealers and robbers - and
their ostentatious lifestyles and cutesy nicknames - no longer sell
newspapers in big numbers. The public attention span is short. Who,
other than her family, will remember in 10 years' time the murder of
Donna Cleary - a 22-year-old mother standing in a room at a house
party when an apparently cocaine-fuelled gunman fired into her house?

There appears to be little confidence that much can be done to stop
what has become commonplace. Even the taoiseach admitted as much in
the Dail last Tuesday, when he said that there would always be
criminals prepared to kill if they thought it would protect or
consolidate their interests. Michael McDowell, the justice minister,
met Noel Conroy, the Garda commissioner, on Monday to discuss this
problem. Afterwards he told the Dail that 20 of the 29 murders that
had taken place this year had been "solved" and that files had been
sent, or were being prepared to be sent, to the director of public
prosecutions, presumably as the basis for actions in the Central
Criminal Court.

But the use of that statistic was somewhat misleading, as was the use
of the word "solved". Securing convictions is a far more difficult
job. Anyway, several of those 29 murders took place in domestic
settings and were always more likely to lead to prosecutions than
carefully planned criminal "hits". A more telling statistic was
provided in the Dail last March by the Labour leader, Pat Rabbitte,
who claimed that only 12 of 75 gun-committed murders in the previous
six years resulted in convictions.

Many senior gardai argue that they know all about the criminals, but
haven't the powers to gather sufficient evidence to secure
convictions. They complain about the legal process, and especially the
rights available to defendants. Operational failures are often
overlooked, or excused by a lack of resources.

According to reports last week, undercover gardai have started to
follow dozens of suspected criminals in Dublin in an effort to stop
further killings. This type of heavy presence helped reduce gang crime
in Limerick in 2004. But in the absence of a reorganisation of
resources, the addition of new gardai and the introduction of a garda
reserve and the proper use of civilians for desk work, such efforts
may have limited success.

It's time for radical and imaginative action. How about the
decriminalisation of certain drugs - such as cannabis - and the
introduction of a licencing system for their distribution and sale, so
as to allow the gardai to concentrate on intercepting the supply of
more dangerous drugs such as heroin, cocaine and their

This would allow for drug use to be controlled to a reasonable degree
by the state. It could tax the products and use the revenue to deal
with the health and social issues that arise from drug use.

After all, alcohol use is regulated and controlled, both the amount of
alcohol in a drink and the situations in which it can be consumed, so
why not apply that process to cannabis? It may be dangerous and
addictive, but so is alcohol and it is regulated rather than banned.

Of course the chances of that happening are remote because no
government is going to want to be regarded as soft on drugs. But
earlier this year gardai came up with the good idea of merely issuing
cautions to the users of cannabis, rather than wasting time seeking
prosecutions for possession. This common-sense idea was dropped when
it became clear that McDowell did not approve.

The justice minister's lack of imagination condemns us to having the
same conversations as we did 10 years ago, apparently oblivious to the
fact that the same old solutions are having little or no impact at
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake