IRELAND’S anti-racketeering agency launched a court battle yesterday to sell the horse ranch of one of the country’s most notorious criminals.
John Gilligan, once Ireland’s biggest drug dealer, led the gang that killed investigative reporter Veronica Guerin in 1996.
Two of his henchmen were convicted of her murder.
Gilligan was acquitted on that charge but received a 28-year sentence for drug smuggling, a term later cut on appeal to 20 years.
The assassination of Guerin - who frequently wrote about Gilligan’s gang and once confronted the drug dealer face to face at the ranch - inspired the government to establish the Criminal Assets Bureau, which can impound criminals’ property and freeze their bank accounts.
The agency’s first major target was Gilligan. His 77-acre equestrian centre, which includes three houses and has an estimated value of €8 million (5.5 million), was seized in 1998.
Irish anti-racketeering law allows such property to be sold off only after the state has held it for at least seven years.
The case that began yesterday involves the bureau’s efforts to win a judgment for "final disposal", a process that legal observers said could take several hearings in the next few months.
The bid is being opposed by Gilligan, his wife Geraldine and his children Tracy and Darren.
Gilligan sat in the Dublin High Court flanked by several prison guards yesterday as his lawyers argued successfully for the case to be adjourned for two weeks until two issues could be resolved: whether taxpayers should cover Gilligan’s legal costs and whether future hearings should be held in private to keep out the media.
High Court Justice Joseph Finnegan also asked Gilligan if he wanted to be present at future hearings involving his property. "I do, and thank you," Gilligan said.
Detective Chief Superintendent Felix McKenna, who heads the CAB, said the bureau would be keeping a close eye on the proceedings.
"The outcome of this case is one that is of huge interest to us," he said.
"We will be looking for the High Court to give us a disposal order against the properties.
"They have been the subject of a freezing order by us for seven years."
If the case is successful it will mark the first major victory for the CAB in seizing criminals’ assets and could set a precedent.
In addition to the equestrian centre at Jessbrook in Co Kildare, the CAB is also attempting to seize two houses in Lucan, one of which is occupied by Gilligan’s son, and a third house in Blanchardstown.
Guerin, an investigative journalist with the Sunday Independent newspaper, was shot dead in June 1996, as she waited at traffic lights in her car on the outskirts of Dublin.
As she made a routine call from her mobile phone, two men on a motorcycle drew up and fired five bullets into her chest.
She died instantly, two weeks short of her 38th birthday.
Threatened, beaten and finally killed for her work, Guerin had made so many enemies among gangland figures that the police had 150 suspects for her murder.
Her killing created a backlash which her assassins could never have predicted and sparked an official crackdown on crime.
The public had followed Guerin’s work with fascination - a year earlier she had been shot in the leg in an attack at her home.
Guerin, a mother of one, had long been the scourge of some of Ireland’s biggest crime overlords and her weekly reports directed an unwelcome spotlight onto the underworld.
Her life story was brought to the screen in 2003 by the director Joel Schumacher. Guerin was played by Cate Blanchett.