The Irish minister who set up the Republic's Criminal Assets Bureau and one of the top investigators in the Veronica Guerin case have spoken of their anger and frustration that John Gilligan's gang is still operating from prison.
Nora Owen, the Republic's Minister for Justice when Veronica was murdered in 1996, yesterday expressed her "utter exasperation" that after 11 years in prison, Gilligan's sidekick, Brian Meehan, was last week still using a mobile phone to direct arms and drugs importation to the State.
Retired Detective Inspector Todd O'Loughlin, the man who brought both Gilligan and Meehan back to Ireland, yesterday said there was "great disappointment" among gardai who had investigated Veronica's murder that the criminals were still active.
"We feel very strongly for Mrs (Bernie) Guerin and the family. It must be terribly upsetting after all these years to have to hear that this gang is still reportedly operating from prison. We devoted four years of our lives to putting these people behind bars and breaking up this gang. I have no great desire to become involved but I am certainly very disappointed.
"This is a problem that has to be addressed, that these people can still operate with this amount of freedom. There are only a handful of very serious people in the system and they should be able to deal with them."
Nora Owen, who set up the CAB in the same year that Veronica was murdered, said: "It really shocks me that in the 10 years since the technology became available, there is still no blocking of mobile phones in prison and nobody seems able to identify where the phones have come into prison and stop them. It is not good enough for the Minister for Justice to be constantly saying, 'We are introducing systems to stop phones'. The actual concept of prison is completely undermined."
It is the first time that any of the core team of detectives who tracked down Gilligan and his gang and broke up the then biggest drugs smuggling operation in the State has spoken publicly.
The decision to break the silence came after police in Holland, Northern Ireland and the Republic uncovered the main arms route for criminals to the State, seizing 41 guns in Ireland and another 165 firearms, along with grenades, silencers, laser sights, ammunition and cash, in raids on four premises in Amsterdam last Thursday. From Portlaoise Prison, Meehan had been in touch with the other members of the Gilligan gang, orchestrating the smuggling through Britain and Northern Ireland.
Ironically, the seizures have placed the future of the entire Gilligan gang in jeopardy. The calls from Meehan's phone allowed gardai to tip off Dutch police, who tracked Gilligan gang members to the premises being used by major arms dealers in Europe.
Sources said yesterday that word had spread throughout the European underworld that Gilligan's gang was to blame for arms smugglers' operations being broken up. It seems likely they will seek retribution. Three Dutchmen and a woman are in custody in Holland following the seizures in the Amsterdam suburbs of Zaandam and Oud West.
There was silence last week from the Irish Prison Service, but the Republic's Prison Officers' Association called for a greater clamp-down on mobile phones in prisons. Senior management, builders and contractors are still allowed take mobiles into prison -- unlike the UK, where all mobile phones are banned.
POA deputy general secretary Eugene Dennehy said: "All mobile phones should be banned. Strangeways Prison in Manchester is one of the biggest prisons in Britain with 3,000 prisoners, yet the governor of Strangeways is not allowed to take his mobile into the prison. It is the same in Northern Ireland.That should be the case here."
There was no comment this week from the head of the Prison Service, Brian Purcell -- who, as an official in the Department of Social Welfare in the late Eighties, was shot in both legs by Dublin gangster Martin Cahill after the department stopped his welfare payments.