How many watershed moments have we experienced in relation to gangland crime in Ireland?
When young plumber Anthony Campbell was murdered as collateral damage in the assassination of gang boss Martin 'Marlo' Hyland, the public reaction was of outrage. When mother-of-two Baiba Saulite was shot dead on the doorstep of her home in Swords, her murder was described as "an evil attack on Irish society". When innocent rugby player Shane Geoghegan was mistaken for a gangland hit and killed in cold blood, we again described this barbaric act as a watershed moment. We said it because we hoped it was, but the truth is that the killings have continued.
The response of the people of Limerick last week to the murder of businessman Roy Collins is to be commended. At precisely the time they might fear for their own safety and that of their families, they lined up in their hundreds to sign books of condolences. Given that the Collins family believe he was killed because another family member gave evidence against notorious gangland criminal Wayne Dundon, it makes their collective action even more remarkable. Some even agreed to be interviewed on television cameras and all expressed their revulsion at the killing.
Unfortunately, their words of outrage hold no weight with the teenage foot soldiers who have proved themselves only too willing and able to execute the most horrific crimes to prove their gang credentials. These are kids who grow up idolising drug and crime lords and whose social networking sites reveal a fascination with guns and death only matched in the ghettoes of other deprived cities around the world. Last month, one of their number, Philip Collopy, unintentionally shot himself as he demonstrated how to use his glock pistol at a party. At his funeral, a young child sitting on an adult's shoulders, was pictured giving a middle-finger salute.
Defence minister Willie O'Dea, who represents Limerick East, says quite rightly that those responsible for the murder of Roy Collins should be jailed for the rest of their lives. But he points out that people who would love to give evidence in certain cases are simply too afraid to do so. "I don't blame them for being afraid in the circumstances. I would urge everybody to do everything possible to cooperate with the guards to help them put people away, but I can quite understand people's sense of fear, particularly in light of recent events.''
The current reality, as demonstrated by this murder, is that to give truthful evidence in a court of law against a gang figure brings with it a grave risk of retaliation. When Ryan Lee refused to serve an underage girl in his Limerick pub he was obeying the law. She happened to be a sister of Wayne Dundon who protested and threatened his life. Less than half an hour after Dundon left the pub, a masked gunman entered the premises and shot Ryan Lee. Dundon was later sentenced to 10 years in jail, reduced on appeal to seven years, after Lee gave evidence against him. Five years later, Lee's stepbrother Roy Collins was shot dead.
Justice minister Dermot Ahern's move to introduce tough new measures for gangland criminals announced on Friday are appropriate and timely. Covert bugging operations and sworn garda testimony will form the cornerstones of gangland prosecutions at the juryless Special Criminal Court.
It will mean that gardaí will have ways of dealing with criminals who appear to be untouchable. Penalties for intimidating witnesses and jurors will be increased from seven years to life, membership of a crime gang will be an offence, directing a gang will be a prosecutable offence and post-release convicted gang members will face much tougher rules excluding them from areas and banning them from associating with former friends.
Concerns about miscarriages of justice and unfair treatment of individuals are to be expected in this new environment. But surely it is far preferable that lawyers argue about such issues in courts of law than gangsters hold entire communities hostage as they inculcate new generations to lives of crime.