It started with the killing of doorman Brian Fitzgerald, who was murdered in 2002 for trying to keep drugs out of a Limerick nightclub. The latest victim is Wayne Doherty, a 32-year-old father of two who was killed trying to defend his friends and neighbours in Hartstown in Dublin.
In between there have been many other senseless murders, among them young mothers Baiba Saulite and Donna Cleary. More recently, the cold-blooded killings of rugby player Shane Geoghegan and businessman Roy Collins in Limerick still resonate in our memories as society's sense of outrage gathers pace. But the killing of Richard "Happy" Kelly did not provoke the same widescale condemnation or public outcry. The 17-year-old's body was discovered, with a concrete block attached to it, in a lake in Co Clare in November 2007, 20 months after he went missing. It is believed the Moyross teenager was murdered by the McCarthy-Dundon gang, who blamed him for stealing one of their cars containing drugs. When he realised who he'd unwittingly robbed, Kelly returned the car and everything in it untouched. But they killed him anyway.
Aside from joyriding, Kelly was not in any way involved in criminality, according to senior garda officers. He had an addiction to stealing cars. Because of this, he hasn't been name-checked by politicians in recent weeks trumpeting the new Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill as the solution to ridding our streets of gang crime.
"Whenever there's another innocent killing, it brings back all my memories of Happy," says Mary Kelly of her young son. "I really hope they can prosecute his killers using this new legislation. I feel a lot of sympathy when another family loses a loved one, like Shane Geoghegan and Roy Collins. But I also feel bitter. Happy didn't play rugby and he wasn't a businessman but he was still an innocent victim. Three weeks ago, my child should have turned 21. I thought I could handle it but it broke my heart in two. I don't know how people can say the new laws are too severe. If the people against it could walk a week in my shoes and live with my pain, they would feel differently. I need to know how my son died. I need to be able to visit his grave and speak to my child properly knowing all the facts of what happened to him."
Steve Collins echoes Mary Kelly's sentiments. Since his son Roy was gunned down in April in retaliation for his family giving evidence against notorious Limerick gang leader Wayne Dundon that led to his imprisonment, the Collins family has campaigned for tough new laws to tackle gangland crime. "The fear has gone from these gangsters. The guards' hands are tied," he says. "Roy's murder has destroyed my life. It has destroyed my business. It has destroyed my closest family and friends. Animals is not the word to describe these people. No one ever thinks it can happen to them. It can. This legislation shouldn't be needed but it is. If you lived my life for one week, you would understand how evil these people are and why these laws are needed. These laws are important for everyone in the state. It's time for people to wake up."
Since his son's murder, the Collins family have been surrounded by eight gardaí providing 24-hour protection. "My children can't go to discos anymore, they can't do lots of things teenagers should. How am I ever going to feel safe again? I will never be safe. We haven't received any more threats since my other son was threatened shortly after Roy's killing but that's because they can't get close to us anymore because of the gardaí," he explains. "Some of the gangs in Limerick are already breaking up and many have moved away because of the pressure from gardaí. Some of them are afraid for their lives because of this piece of legislation. These new laws will help my family. I want my life back."
In the face of such emotive testimony, the new legislation has a lot to live up to. Families of murder victims will expect convictions and the inevitable setbacks will lead to frustration and disappointment. One solicitor backing the new measures is John
Hennessy, the Swords-based solicitor of murdered Latvian Baiba Saulite, who was gunned down outside her home in 2006. Like Collins, Hennessy remains under armed garda protection, as his life has been threatened because he represented the murdered mother-of-two.
"I'm a victim of crime myself. And that, coupled with my legal background, gives me a particular insight into what's going on. This legislation is promising to challenge the people who organise and control these gangs. I feel relief and satisfaction that something is finally being done," he says. "I've been accused of being emotive about this because of my personal experience. Of course I am. There's emotiveness in every situation. You've no idea what it's like to live like this."
Senior officers have told the Sunday Tribune that garda profilers in each division have drawn up dossiers of over 300 criminals they believe should face charges, under the new legislation, of controlling a criminal gang or membership of a crime gang. But worryingly, not all of those being examined could be described as serious criminals who warrant non-jury trials at the Special Criminal Court. It would be wrong for low-level criminals to be targeted and face non-jury trials, says Hennessy, who promises to swiftly change his tune if the new legislation, when enacted, doesn't 'do what it says on the tin'. "I will have plenty to say if, when this is law, the top guys are not being pulled off the streets.
Gardaí must now be motivated and target the leaders and the directors of these serious criminal gangs."
The solicitor has come out in strong opposition to 133 of his legal colleagues who outlined several concerns about the new measures in a letter to the Irish Times last week. "It annoyed me. What right have these lawyers got to interfere at this stage? They should only be arguing the toss against it in court after it becomes law."
The legal fraternity have every right to speak out before the law is passed, according to Cork solicitor Frank Buttimer, as it's obviously much simpler to change proposed legislation before it's enacted than amend the act later, which could take years. The lawyers' main gripe is the sheer speed with which this important piece of legislation has gone through the Dáil. The group maintains that the
abolition of juries for a range of new offences, the use of opinion evidence from any garda as to the existence of a criminal organisation and the provision for secret hearings to extend detentions without the presence of the suspect or their lawyer are developments of major concern.
Most of the legal fraternity, as well as a proportion of the judiciary, are anxious about the direction these new laws are taking the country. But solicitors and barristers opposing it are well aware the court of public opinion disagrees. And that's all that matters in politics.
"The idea that this piece of legislation will be the cure to all of our problems with gangland crime simply will not be the case," says Buttimer. "Judge Paul Carney, the presiding judge of the Central Criminal Court, has said he has had no problem with getting juries in Limerick. Trials of gangland criminals can be moved to different parts of the country, there are ways to protect witnesses and jurors aside from moving these trials to the Special Criminal Court. If we go down that route, the next logical step is internment."
Buttimer feels there is a "very strong possibility" that President Mary McAleese will not sign the bill into law but refer it to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality.
If so, this could work in the government's favour because if the Supreme Court upholds it, the legislation can never be legally challenged again. A very public row over the new crime bill was played out in the Dáil and media last week, with accusations and counter claims on all sides. But when the dust settles, defence solicitor Michael Finucane believes the real losers will be the families of innocent victims who are pinning all their hopes for justice on these new measures.
"The most objectionable aspect of the minister's campaign to pass the bill is that anyone who tries to force him to justify any part of it is attacked and painted as a friend of the criminal," he says. "The real tragedy is that, ultimately, ordinary people in besieged communities will pay the price when the measures inevitably fail and there is nothing meaningful or effective to replace them."