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The search for the killers of Irish journalist Veronica Guerin has turned into a national witch-hunt, reports Brendan O'Neill

The Irish inquisition

In November last year 58-year old Patrick Holland from County Wicklow was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for possessing cannabis for the purposes of sale or supply. Holland was tried before Dublin's non-jury Special Criminal Court and convicted on the uncorroborated evidence of an alleged accomplice, otherwise known as a supergrass. Even in our anti-drugs age a 20-year sentence for possessing cannabis with no evidence and no right to trial by jury should raise more than a few eyebrows. But there is worse to come. Many believe that while it may have said 'cannabis possession' on the charge sheet, Holland was actually punished for a different crime entirely.

'It was a proxy trial', says Irish Times journalist Kevin Myers. 'Holland was tried on a proxy charge that would do for putting him away for Veronica Guerin's murder. There is no doubt that he is being punished for the killing of Veronica Guerin.' This is a view held by many in Dublin though few are willing to say it out loud. A climate of fear and suspicion has surrounded the investigation into Veronica Guerin's murder, which shocked the nation on 26 June 1996. As Ireland's best-known journalist Guerin spent her career exposing 'criminal warlords' and gang leaders and paid for it with her life. The Irish authorities are pursuing her killers with a vengeance, even going so far as to undermine their own legal system.

'Holland was brought before a kangaroo court for a kangaroo trial', says Myers. 'He was tried before the Special Criminal Court which is unprecedented for an offence which is quite clearly not a terrorist offence. The evidence was given by one man, Charley Bowden, himself a convicted felon, who said that Holland had bought cannabis from him at a time he could not specify. There was no forensic evidence; there was only worthless, unsubstantiated evidence which would have been thrown out in a normal trial.'

But Hollands' was no 'normal trial', as Myers points out: 'The charge on the charge sheet was for the purchase of cannabis, but at the trial evidence of the Veronica Guerin murder was being brought before the court as if that was what the trial was about.' Myers is certain that 'Holland was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for the murder of Veronica Guerin'.

The newspapers from the time of Holland's arrest, trial and imprisonment give credence to Myers' belief that it was a 'proxy trial'. Throughout the proceedings Holland (charged with possessing cannabis, remember) was referred to by reporters as 'the man suspected of murdering Veronica Guerin'. Such uncorroborated and irrelevant claims were also brought before the court itself, a move which would have been deemed seriously prejudicial in a trial by jury. Charging a man with one crime but sentencing him for another undermines every principle of justice.

Following the trial and imprisonment of Patrick Holland I was reminded of the court scenes in Arthur Miller's classic play The Crucible, about the witch-hunts in seventeenth century Salem. As the Puritan town descends further into fear and hysteria suspicion becomes equated with guilt and the local court becomes a sham as reason gives way to superstition. Miller's play is often read as an indictment of modern-day witch-hunts, particularly McCarthyism in 1950s America: today it could just as easily be an indictment of events in Ireland.

You do not have to be a friend of the drug dealers to be alarmed at what is happening. The search for Veronica Guerin's killers has turned into a witch-hunt with all the necessary ingredients for a 1990s-style inquisition: a climate of fear and hysteria whipped up by the police and media, the suspension of a fair and impartial legal system in favour of quick-fit, non-jury 'witch-trials', and the sinister absence of any critical dissent.

In the three months after Guerin's murder alone, more than 100 people were arrested and interrogated by the police, 100 firearms were seized and over 200 properties were raided and searched. In the 18 months since, hundreds more have been arrested and effecitvely blacklisted by being associated with Guerin's murder. Some of those alleged to be Ireland's major drug-dealers have fled the country for fear of being framed. Currently, Paul Ward, a 33-year old from Crumlin in Dublin stands accused of Guerin's murder. Under the Criminal Assets Bureau, set up in the wake of Guerin's killing, Ward has been denied legal aid (even though he is unemployed). At the time of going to press Ward's legal team are appealing against attempts to have their client tried before the non-jury Special Criminal Court where Patrick Holland fared so badly. For legal reasons Ward's solicitor Michael Farrell could not speak to me, except to say that civil liberties in Ireland are in a 'parlous state'.

'They certainly are', says Aileen Donnelly, chair of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL). 'In the wake of Veronica Guerin's killing the hysteria has been such that the government can bring in virtually any piece of legislation on the back of the public outcry over her murder. We really are getting into a position where there are no rights for the individual in the criminal process. It is not just a gradual erosion any more, but a chiselling away in almost earthquake proportions.'

On 26 July 1996, one month after Guerin was killed, the Irish government forced five emergency Bills through the Dail (Irish parliament) in an attempt to tackle organised crime and drug trafficking. The changes included qualifying the right to silence in drugs cases, granting greater powers of arrest to the gardai (Irish police), allowing for the seven-day detention of those found in possession of drugs, appointing more judges to bring prosecutions to trial faster and the setting up of a Criminal Assets Bureau to investigate criminal wealth.

The message of the new measures was clear: as Veronica Guerin was murdered by drug dealers anybody who has anything to do with drugs is a suspect and can expect to be interrogated and harassed at the authorities' pleasure. But just as McCarthyism, in the words of one historian, 'insulted all Americans, not just communists', so the post-Veronica legislation will stamp on everybody's liberties not just those of the pushers.

'It is getting out of hand', says Aileen Donnelly. 'The gardai now have greater powers of arrest without warrant for any offence which carries a minimum sentence of five years, which is virtually anything: larceny, shoplifting, anything. And they have the power to come into people's homes and offices and arrest them for relatively minor crimes.

'Seven-day detention has been brought in for anybody suspected to be in possession of drugs with intent to supply. It is accepted internationally that the reason people are kept in prison or a police station for that long is simply for the purpose of breaking them down. The right to silence has become meaningless: inferences can now be drawn if you don't rely on something at the time of your arrest that you later rely on in your defence. And there are plans to restrict the right to silence in all cases, not just drugs cases.'

Donnelly and the ICCL are most concerned about the increasing use of the non-jury Special Criminal Court in Dublin. 'The government feels free to use the Special Court for non-paramilitary offences', says Donnelly. 'We have got a situation where we have set up Diplock-style courts, using supergrasses in a way that we were complaining about in the North in the 1980s. They are taking away one of the most fundamental rights: the right to trial by jury.'

Some say there is now a three-tier system of justice in Ireland: one for ordinary criminal cases, with juries and rules of evidence; a second for paramilitaries, without juries and with confusing rules of evidence; and a third for drug dealers suspected of being involved in the murder of Veronica Guerin, without juries and where evidence insufficient to convict a petty thief in most countries is enough to earn a heavy sentence. So much for equality before the law.

In the name of the search for Veronica Guerin's killers, civil liberties and the legal system are being severely undermined in Ireland, yet there is no public outcry. As in all witch-hunts, it seems that people are scared to speak out for fear of implicating themselves. 'Anybody who tries to stand up and say "hold on a minute here, I think we're going too far" is immediately branded as being soft on crime or, even worse, of being insufficiently outraged by the murder of Veronica Guerin', says one solicitor: 'It looks like if the government wants to implement something without criticism they do it in the name of Veronica.' As a result, there are few dissenters in post-Veronica Ireland. The journalists who have raised awkward questions about aspects of the witch-hunt can be counted on one hand: veteran commentator Vincent Browne, radical Northern writer Eamon McCann, and Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers.

For his part in raising questions about the trial of Patrick Holland, Myers is being sued by two of the police officers who originally questioned Holland, even though neither of them are mentioned in the offending article (see The Irish Times, 11 December 1997). But Myers told me that he suspects the libel writ is being 'urged and promoted' from the top of the Garda. 'This has effectively been served as a gagging order not to touch the issue again', he said. Not that such a gagging order was really necessary; for the most part the Irish media has chosen to remain silent about post-Veronica injustices, or has even positively fuelled the suspicious climate.

One of the most disturbing cases I came across in the course of writing this article was that of Michael Hanahoe and Co, a reputable Dublin-based firm of solicitors. They represent John Gilligan, one of the major suspects in the Guerin investigation who protests his innocence but has fled Ireland, claiming that he will not receive a fair trial. (Gilligan is currently in Belmarsh Prison in south London, awaiting extradition to Ireland.) Despite the public outcry, Hanahoe and Co continue to represent their client's interests, presumably because they believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty and that everybody has the right to legal representation.

At the end of 1996 a number of gardai visited Hanahoe and Co's office with a warrant to search and seize documents, an intrusion which is 'unprecedented in the history of the legal profession in this state', according to one barrister. But what was most remarkable about the garda 'visit' was that the media turned up with them. 'In fact, the media were there before the police', Senior Counsel Donal O'Donnell told me. O'Donnell represented Hanahoe and Co when they sued the state for causing 'outrageous damage' to the firm's reputation. 'There were already media, at least a cameraman and probably a journalist, outside the offices before the warrant had been obtained from the District Justice', he says.

In the course of Hanahoe and Co's action against the state it became clear that the news editor of the Star had received a phone call about the search at between 1 and 2pm on the day in question, even before the warrant had been obtained, let alone before the search began. Other editors and journalists had also received anonymous tip-offs about the raid. This little-discussed incident exposes the complicity of the media in contributing to the climate of fear and suspicion around Guerin's murder. The media circus had dire consequences for Michael Hanahoe and Co: workers at the firm received death threats and their children were bullied and threatened at school. All because the media, in league with the authorities, had depicted the firm as being in some way 'anti-Veronica'.

The search for Veronica Guerin's killers is Ireland's Salem. It has become an all-encompassing witch-hunt, where the right to a fair trial no longer exists, where civil liberties have been obliterated and where even the idea of a free, critical press is folding in on itself. Why? Is it simply that the authorities are determined to hunt down this particular gang of callous killers? I think there is more to it than that.

'Social disorder in any age breeds mystical suspicion', wrote Arthur Miller in his introduction to The Crucible. Like every other part of the Western world Ireland has gone through a period of social disorder (or at least social disturbance) recently, where the traditional institutions have been discredited and can no longer win people's allegiance. Every political party in Ireland has been tarnished with scandal in recent years and even the Catholic Church has been disgraced following claims of widespread child abuse and debauchery. Ireland is suffering from what might be called 'post-traditional stress disorder'.

It is in this climate that Veronica Guerin has become an important icon. Desperate for a fresh source of authority, for something that could unite the nation behind them, Ireland's leaders latched on to Guerin's death. In March 1996, Britain's political and spiritual establishment had exploited the Dunblane massacre by turning it into a national carnival of mourning; three months later, Ireland's leaders sought to repeat the trick with Guerin's murder.

There was the laying of flowers in public places, the open displays of grief, the nationwide minute's silence, while Ireland's prime minister, president and head of armed forces sat together in the front pew of the church at her funeral service. Of course, this phenomenon of 'unity through tragedy' reached its pinnacle with the response to the death of Princess Diana last year, but the signs were already there in the wake of Dunblane in Britain and Guerin's murder in Ireland.

It is also out of this fearful and disorientated climate that the witch-hunt emerges. The tireless search for Guerin's killers provides the Irish authorities with a mission, a moral crusade, something which can give the appearance of strong leadership. Never mind that along the way legal rights and free speech have been trampled underfoot.

Like every other journalist I too was outraged by the murder of Veronica Guerin, who had come to journalism late in life and had excelled as one of Europe's best investigative reporters. But this should not blind us to the dangers of the post-Veronica witch-hunt. Indeed, what could be more insulting to the memory of a woman who committed herself to fearless investigation and reporting of the truth, than a process which ends up attacking civil liberties and undermining the idea of a free press?


Between Dunblane and Diana, Veronica Guerin's funeral became Ireland's national festival of mourning

Veronica Guerin recovering from an earlier attack. A brave investigative journalist, her memory is now being used to attack press freedom


Reproduced from LM issue 109, April 1998
 
 

 

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