IT'S BEEN BUBBLING beneath the surface for some time. But the vicious beating and shooting of a Wicklow man 10 days ago catapulted the issue into the spotlight: motorcycle gangs with a propensity for, and willingness to, engage in violence exist in this country. And tensions have never been higher. Turf wars between Irish motorcyclists and international clubs have begun in earnest. Organised crime syndicates the Hell's Angels and Outlaws Motorcycle Club have started a recruitment drive in Ireland, sparking fury among bikers here.

Gary Lee (32), from Bray in Co Wicklow, has been living alone in an isolated, rural cottage in Knockananna on the Wicklow-Carlow border for several years. Ten days ago, a group of unwanted visitors descended on his home. He was tied up, beaten with baseball bats, and shot in the arm. Lee had three licensed firearms in his home – two shotguns and a rifle – which were stolen by the gang of assailants. After the group of men fled, Lee managed to free himself and made his way to his neighbour's house where the alarm was raised. Two days later, detectives found a pipe bomb in the hot press at his home. The army bomb disposal unit were called to defuse the device. Lee is a member of the Celtic Demons motorbike club. But he invoked the wrath of other bikers by sporting patches on his jacket that signified he was aligned to a club he was not a part of.

There are almost 100 motorcycle clubs around the country, and each has its own club patches. These are proudly displayed on the arms of members' jackets. Members of these clubs are biking enthusiasts and not involved in criminality in any way. A small cohort of motorcycle clubs wear an arrangement of three patches on the back of their jackets, which signifies they are recognised internationally. Within the biking world, the right to wear certain patches must be earned, and it is a right fiercely protected by members. Lee broke the unspoken rule. He had been sporting patches he had no right to wear. For this reason, he was beaten, bound and shot. His attackers also ripped the patches from his jacket during the ordeal.

There are four clubs in Ireland whose members are permitted to wear the three-patch arrangement. They are the Devil's Disciples, the Freewheelers, the Road Tramps and the Vikings. The four clubs recently formed "Alliance Ireland". Essentially, they have formed a syndicate to try and oppose the Hells Angels and Outlaws MC from gaining a foothold here. "The Celtic Demons are not part of that syndicate but Gary Lee was sporting patches that suggested they were, so he was shot. It's as simple as that," said a source from within the biking fraternity. "The Celtic Demons were regarded as getting too big for their boots but this has really put them back in their place. The alliance are trying to assert themselves. They also are trying to send a clear message to the Hells Angels and the Outlaws that they can flex their muscles too."

Outside the law

On its website, Alliance Ireland states that the four clubs are "1%" motorcyclists. Internationally, this signifies bikers' "outlaw" status from mainstream motorcycle society – they consider themselves the 1% of bikers that operate outside the law. But it does not necessarily mean that all the members of these clubs are involved in criminality. The shooting of Lee has been linked to the Devil's Disciples, but sources suggest more than one group may have planned and orchestrated the attack on him.

The four clubs in Alliance Ireland guard their status fiercely. They were uncontactable for comment this weekend, but they are clear about their views and what differentiates them from other clubs on their websites. "The Vikings MC Ireland are proud to be members of the Alliance Ireland group of combined Irish MC 1% clubs, who are united to keep the Irish bike scene free of international biker politics. In the words of our ancestors, 'Ireland her own, from the earth to the sky,'" reads the statement on the Vikings' website.

Interpol, and police forces internationally, have classified the Hells Angels and the Outlaws as highly organised and powerful crime gangs heavily involved in drug trafficking. The clubs themselves deny this, saying that they are simply motorbike enthusiasts and that brushes with the law by some of their members tar the entire fraternity.

In 2001, the Outlaws established themselves in Ireland. They now have six chapters throughout the country. A garda source said the group had recruited members from all across Ireland, many of whom were lured away from other biking clubs. "There is something very glamorous about these international clubs to some young guys who are into bikes. I mean, the Outlaws and the Hells Angels are major crime organisations worldwide so young fellas who want to look and act tough are naturally attracted to join them," said the source. "While there are of course criminal elements within these groups in Ireland, there is nothing that we consider a cause for major concern at the moment. There certainly is drug dealing and they do have some access to firearms. We know what these gangs have done in other countries, so they are being watched."

The Hells Angels are by far the most notorious motorbike gang worldwide. They have a chapter in the North (where they ran into conflict with loyalist paramilitaries in the 1970s) and at present are trying to establish themselves in the south. "The Hells Angels and the Outlaws have obviously caused big problems worldwide. There have been particular issues in recent years in the Scandinavian countries," added the garda source. "The situation is being monitored here. Many of the members are not involved in crime. But those that are cannot be ignored."

Gardaí are keenly aware of the bad blood that exists between the Hells Angels and the Outlaws and know that tensions could spill over at any point. In 2007, Hells Angel member Gerard Tobin was shot dead on the M40 near London. His was murdered by the Outlaws. With both of these gangs expanding in Ireland, it is possible that the feud between them will ignite here as many of the members have close contacts in the UK. Add to this situation a small group of Irish bikers – some of whom have links to criminality – who are disgruntled with the growth in membership of the big international clubs, and there is the potential for serious trouble.

Recruitment drive

Irish clubs have gone on a recruitment drive since losing a proportion of their members to the Hells Angels and Outlaws and seem to be getting more organised. It seems unlikely that they can stem the growth of these crime syndicates, given these gangs' power internationally, but the fact that they are prepared to try illustrates that they are demanding to be taken seriously.

The shooting of Gary Lee is also proof that bikers from some of the homegrown clubs mean business. There are several motorbike rallies taking place this weekend in various parts of the country. Gardaí are expected to monitor the situation. "I think this is only the beginning of the violence," added the source from within the biking fraternity.

"The next year will be very telling in terms of who is going to assert themselves. There have been massive problems with violence and turf wars between bikers in every other country – why would Ireland escape the biker wars?"