November 11, 2009

“Ah, come on, what’s Star backwards?”

HE CERTAINLY wasn’t taking any prisoners.
I wasn’t sure what the reaction of Pat Kenny’s tormentor Alan O’Brien would be when Gary Ashe and I went to his home address to have a little chat with him. It was barely 14 hours after Monday night’s bizarre incident on RTE1 and maybe his blood was still up. Moreover, the questions I wanted to ask him weren’t conducive the conversation ending well.
O’Brien had been feted as something of a hero after he confronted Pat Kenny about his salary live on air during Monday night’s edition of The Frontline. I was watching the show myself and, as soon as he started his rant, I knew I would probably have to go after him the next day.
Presumably like most other news desks in the city, mine wanted firstly to find out the identity of heckler - and then what his story was. As I was driving in to work the following morning, I was frantically wracking my brains, wondering how I would find him.
In the end, I was saved by Today FM. Ray D’Arcy carried a live interview with the heckler, in which he revealed his names was Alan O’Brien and was from Inchicore.
That was all we needed. Within a few minutes we had his address. From there it wasn't too hard to establish he had been in trouble with the law on a few occasions.

(This photo by Gary Ashe shows Alan O'Brien giving me a piece of his mind. He got a good bit closer to me than he did to Pat Kenny. ⓒ Irish Daily Star)

He wasn’t exactly a master crime boss, but he had been before the courts. He was convicted of assaulting a man in a psychiatric clinic of St. James’ Hospital in Dublin (as well as damaging 12 plates, 12 bowls, 12 saucers and 12 glasses); he was fined €100 for criminal damage to a house in Drimnagh; he was given the benefit of the probation act for trespassing in a house in Ballyfermot. But the real item of interest was an incident on Grafton Street in December 2006. There, he launched abuse at people walking by, shouting: “Black Bastards...Muslim...Islamic scum.” He was later given a three month suspended jail term after he was convicted of one count under the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act.
Bingo. We had him. He was a racist thug. Now all we had to do was confront him and put the convictions to him. Maybe he would explode and shout how he hated foreigners coming into Ireland; maybe he would lose the head when his dark past was put to him.
The reality was somewhat different. In fact, after we got him, Gary and I walked away laughing, and with our tails slightly between our legs. He was clearly no racist - and clearly knew how to put us in our place.
We got him as he walked into his flats complex after a visit to the dentist. When we approached him, he was carrying a bundle of newspapers under his arm. After I told him who we were and where we were from, he sniffily replied: “I don’t do tabloids.” A quick glance at the papers under his arm bore that out - they were all broadsheets. Anyway, he deigned to talk to us about his intervention on the Frontline for a few minutes. Gary and I had already decided that we would get as much as we could out of him before we asked him about his criminal past.
So, to be honest, he talked on for four or five minutes about his rationale, while I pretended to listen. The reality is that while he was talking, I was vacantly nodding my head, all the time thinking: “Will I ask him now? Is he going to belt me when I put it to him?”
Eventually, he opened the door by saying how he had been in trouble with the law - but only for breach of the peace, don’t you know. “Well, let’s talk about the Grafton Street incident,” I said.
I braced myself for his reaction - but when it came it was completely unexpected.
There was no anger, no explosion, no self pity.
All I got was a look of contempt, mixed with pity.
“I do not have a racist bone in my body,” he said.
“But hold on a minute,” I countered. “You can’t really go round calling people black bastards…”
“Yes, I can. “I have Islamic friends, I am not racist.
“I was using very obvious insensitive things to see their reaction.
“And the reactions from some people were over the top.
“I was trying to get a reaction.
“Black bastards, Jews, Muslims, Greeks, it’s all just words.
“My brother in law is a black bastard - and I am a white bastard.”
Then he turned on me.
“The Star is not in a position to take the moral ground on the language they use.
“You use very figurative language to describe criminals from a certain area but you wouldn’t use the same language about the bankers.”
I protested, weakly, that we were going after the bankers big time - but he was in full flow now.
“If you want to put down these things as a way of taking the sting out of what I said to Pat Kenny, you go ahead and say what you want.
“My principles stand for themselves.
“You don’t even know the basis of what went on.”
Oh, eh right. Our carefully planned ambush collapsed as he laughed and asked us:
“Come on, what is Star backwards?”
That’s what I was thinking as I slunk back to my car.

September 21, 2009

“I know this is a stupid question, but I’m paid to ask them: how do you feel?”

His face betrays a gamut of emotions: terror, disbelief, despair, denial.
While I shake his hand, he stares off into the distance, as if he is can’t quite comprehend what is happening to him.
He looks as if he hasn’t slept since he walked free from a Garda station, 17 hours earlier: but who could blame him? How could anyone doze off after being grilled by gardai for almost a full day over the violent death of their sister?
As Anthony Ahearne walks towards us, it’s clear to see his world has been turned upside down.

I had seen this photograph of the 31-year-old the previous day, taken a few months, a lifetime, ago.
In the photograph with him is his sister Brenda, whose death he was questioned about all day Wednesday last week. They are celebrating her 30th birthday and both are clearly happy. It was taken in March, just six months ago. Brenda's sister Lisa is on the right.
But now in the flesh, Anthony looks completely different. The confident, relaxed, smile has dissipated. He seems to have shrunk, to have somehow gotten younger. As he approaches me and photographer Karen Morgan, I mistake him for a teenager.

(This photo, taken by Karen Morgan, shows how much he has changed from the birthday snap. ©Irish Daily Star)
The previous night he had been arrested after Brenda died following an incident at her twin sister Lisa’s home in the city. She suffered a single wound to the head, inflicted by the shaft of a poker. The poker embedded itself into her skull.
When we first heard about the death, it seemed an open and shut case: woman dies of head injuries, her brother in custody. We expected a court appearance in a matter of hours.
But within a few minutes of getting to the Richardson’s Meadows estate in Waterford where Brenda died, it was clear there was more to this story than met the eye.
A neighbour who spoke to Lisa’s partner John Kenny as the paramedics fought to save Brenda said he told her it was an accident, that Anthony was waving the poker about during a row and that the shaft broke off and slammed into her head.
A few hours later, John Kenny turns up and I speak to him. He fights back tears as he insists it was nothing more than an accident.
“It just flew through the air like a spear,” he maintains.
I check with a Garda contact. Could that really have happened? It’s possible, he says, warily. But the contact did confirm the poker was embedded in her head and, crucially, that there were no other injuries: whatever happened, Brenda had not been the subject of a sustained attack.
The next day, we write that the family insist it was an accident – other media outlets say she had been bludgeoned to death.
That’s the benefit of going to a scene rather than trying to cover a death from your office: you’ll always get something extra – whether it be an interview with a loved one or a snippet of information that changes everything.
Early the next day, I heard the news that Anthony had been released without charge: I knew that meant gardai were at least looking at the possibility Brenda’s death was an accident. If they felt they could prove she was assaulted, he would have been in court in a few hours.
I also know that, now he is out, there is a chance he’ll speak to us. Again, I head down to Waterford, negotiating with the Ahearnes all the way down from Dublin.
Eventually, after pleading, cajoling, begging and harassing the family for the whole day, Anthony agrees to meet us at 5pm.
We met in a car park in Waterford City, around 16 hours after he had been released from Garda custody.
He looks shattered, broken. A shell of a man.
There is no small talk. He stands glumly with his sister, Brenda’s twin Lisa, as well as her partner John Kenny and two of the dead woman’s three kids. They are standing by him. He looks grateful for the support.
I take the rest of them into the pub and offer to buy the kids a drink: they politely decline. Karen stands outside having a smoke with Anthony.
After a few minutes, he comes into the pub. He is ready to talk.
It was not an easy interview. He didn’t want to - refused to - talk about the actual events, but wanted to get across that whatever happened has been a mistake.
The conversation is stilted, awkward even: I try to draw him out, but his defences are understandably up.
And then I ask a silly question. As is my wont.
“I know this is a stupid question,” I say, “but I’m paid to ask them: how do you feel?”
What do I expect him to say? Great? Relieved not to be charged? Just wanna put it all behind me? You know yourself?
Of course I know how he feels – I can see it in his eyes. Put coarsely, he is fucked. But there’s no point me guessing that – I need him to tell me.
He looks at me as if I’m a muppet, as if it’s the most idiotic question that has ever been put to him.
But he starts talking.
“I will never be able to forgive myself,” he tells me.
He speaks of how he held Brenda in his arms as she slowly died; how he kissed her and told her to hang in there; how he begged her to stay alive; how he’ll never be able to forgive himself.
Stupid question number two from me: do you think you’ll ever get over this?
He stares at me. I can tell he’s thinking that really is the most stupid question ever. How could he ever do that? How could he ever put this behind him?
“I will never get over this. It will stay with me until I check out,” he says.
The interview is over a few moments later and we rush back to my car, a deadline looming.
As we work on our laptops, the Ahearnes walks past. Anthony is surrounded by his family.
But he has never been more alone.

July 19, 2009

“He ruined my life...he ruined our mother’s life.”

She walks into the court, accompanied by the garda who had been with her 11 years earlier. Back then, she was a terrified 14-year-old, sitting in a room off the court, getting ready to give her evidence to the judge and jury via videolink.
It was a year after Simon McGinley raped her when she was just 13. It was a year after she had secretly, unwillingly, hit the headlines as the C case girl.
Now, she is a 25-year-old woman, still terrified, still damaged. But, somehow, she summoned up the strength to sit in the body of court number one and face her tormentor, the man who still comes at her and rapes her in her nightmares.
She sat right at the back of the court, occasionally looking over at Simon McGinley as Mr Justice George Birmingham told him he was jailing him for 21 years – although in reality with remission and having been in prison for a year already he’ll be free in 15.The only people she talked to was her garda, now a sergeant, and a family member of the victim of the latest woman raped by McGinley. An 85-year-old pensioner, for heaven’s sake.
The judge hit the nail on the head. “It is hard to come to terms with the fact that the same person is capable of raping a 13-year-old girl and then an 85-year-old woman.” Quite.
After the sentence is handed down, the judge rises for a few minutes. McGinley’s first victim quietly gets up from her seat and walks out. She’d seen what she wanted, needed, to see.
I rang her earlier in the day to tell her McGinley was up for sentencing for his latest rape. She rang me back a few minutes later to say she was coming down, that she had to see him being sentenced.
I met her at the Luas stop outside the Four Courts and walked her in to the complex, telling her to walk a few feet behind me just in case any photographers saw me with her and put two and two together.
By the time she got into court, the daughter of the now 86-year-old woman destroyed by McGinley had had her say. The victim impact statement was delivered with a dignity that was spellbinding. She essentially said McGinley had destroyed her mother’s life.
The C case woman never got a chance to tell a judge the damage McGinley had done to her. So here is part of an interview I did with her last month in which she does just that. Below that, I’ve put in the impact statement from the latest victim’s family.
This animal destroyed two women; a lady and a child.If you want to know what rape does to a victim and their family, read the two statements.
First, the child:

He raped me the whole night.
“He kept stopping and raping me, stopping and raping me, stopping and raping me.
“He must have raped me about 10 times that night and then dropped me home and put a knife to my throat and said ` if you tell anybody I’m going to kill you and your family’.
“He just had no remorse in him, he had no feelings. It was like he didn’t care what he did.
“It’s like there is no fear, it’s like the devil is in him – the devil is in him.
“I am still, to this day, terrified if he comes near me.
“I hardly ever leave this apartment.
“The only time I leave this apartment is to bring the child to school, then straight back again. I get my money on Wednesday, do my shopping and straight back again.
“I don’t go out at the weekends. The last time I went out, me and my friend, some fella approached me and said `You’re the girl that was raped by Simon McGinley, aren’t you?’ That just turned me off going out, so I just don’t go out.
“I’ve set myself on fire, I’ve cut my arms, I’ve been and out of Portrane.
“It does not go away, the feelings don’t go away. The nightmares don’t go away.
“I can’t sleep. I have big massive bags under my eyes from not sleeping. I’m on sleeping tablets.
“About four hours sleep will have every night – sometimes even less.
“One time I was down in Woodie’s and I thought I saw a man like him. I was with my sister in a car and I just shouted `get out, get out, get out.’ I was afraid for my life.
“I’ve been in and out of hospitals.
They sent me to Warrenstown House, I stayed there for a year – that’s a children’s psychiatric hospital in Blanchardstown.
“I was in there for a year, highly medicated.
“I’ve been in and out of hospital a good few times.
“It’s hard but my little fella keeps me going. Only for him I would probably be 10 feet under the ground at this stage.
“I’ve tried to take my own life. I was in a coma, it was an overdose and my sister found me in the bedroom and that was only last year.
“I set myself on fire twice when I was in care and then I set myself on fire when I was on Portrane Hospital on the day of my 19th birthday.
“The fear. I just couldn’t hack it. Sometimes it just gets so unbearable that you just can’t cope with it anymore.
“You just can’t get him out of your head.
“He has ruined my life, he has ruined my life.
“You may say he has taken over my life, but I’m trying not to let him.
“I’m trying to get him out of my head, that’s why I’m going for counselling now.
“I feel like I’m choking because he was choking me and holding my mouth. I wake up all sweaty from having that dream.
“I remember trying to escape out of the van that night and he ran after me and grabbed me by the throat, shoved me back into the van and drove somewhere else and raped me again.”

Now, this is victim impact statement of the daughter of the lady he raped in her own home in June last year:

“My mother was a courageous, resourceful woman who raised 10 children in difficult times.
“It wasn’t until she was in her sixties that she had the leisure and the modest financial means to begin to really enjoy her life.
“She loved to travel and made regular trips to visit family and friends in England, Europe, America as well as the four corners of Ireland and was still doing so up until the time of the rape last year.
“Her greatest passion was gardening and she spent countless hours tending her plants and visiting famous gardens wherever she went.
“She relished all these pleasures with enthusiasm and engagement.
“It is true that she had, in recent years, become forgetful mislaid things and needed help in navigating any complicated paperwork but she was still able to drive her limited routes, to run her home and to function effectively on her own.
“She valued and was proud of her independence.
“All that capability was dramatically swept away almost overnight last June.
“The family is in no doubt that the rape by Simon McGinley led to a marked acceleration of her incipient dementia.
“It very quickly became clear that she could no longer function on her own, as before.
“She now needs someone to be with her at all times, to drive, shop, cook, clean – to effectively take over the running of her life.
“A second consequence of the rape has been an abiding fearfulness that is never far from my mother’s sense of her life now.
“The sight of an unfamiliar face, a man passing the kitchen window, an unexpected knock at the door can be a cause now of extreme anxiety for her.
“Fear is never far from the surface.
“Bad as these two consequences of the assault are, the most heartbreaking result is the loss of joy from my mother’s life.
“There has been a complete rupture with all the activities that gave her life pleasure and meaning.
“She is no longer interested in meeting with friends, no longer goes to mass, no longer travels and above all no longer cares about her garden.
“The spark that lit up her days has gone forever.
“Instead of the gradual, easeful decline into advanced years that her own parents had enjoyed, our mother was taken from the still golden phase of her life and thrust brutally into its terminal stages by Simon McGinley’s crime.”

One man did this. He destroyed two lives. And he doesn’t give a shit.

June 30, 2009

Genuflecting your way out of dodge.

I loiter in the park across the road from the church, plucking up the necessary courage.
Eventually, after a few minutes’ prevarication, I know I have no choice. I come out of the park, cross the road and walk slowly through the car park of St. Joseph’s, my heart pounding.
Normally I don’t have a problem doing high profile funerals. Like most reporters who cover them, I have my own way of doing things - a technique that has stood by me and got me out of there in safety for more than a decade.
Some reporters look completely conspicuous at funerals, walking into the church with their eyes wide open in fear, a notebook in one hand, a pen in the other. They stick out like a sore thumb, especially when they congregate together. Like sheep.
I usually dress down, maybe in a shirt and jeans, rather than a suit. I’m not trying to show any disrespect to anyone - it’s just that I don’t want to look like a reporter. Some of my colleague joke that my undercover outfit actually makes me look like a cop. All I need is a doughnut, but I’ve had too many of them so I’ll pass on that.
In the church, I try to hide in plain view. I ignore my colleagues, and they do the same to me. I walk in, trying not to show any hesitation. Without breaking my stride, I focus on one pew and head for it, as if I know the church really well.
Then I sit there, surrounded by other mourners for the duration of the funeral mass. I have a small digital Dictaphone in my hand, which I turn on just before I enter the church. It stays on until I leave the church, usually at communion. With luck, nobody even notices me. Job done.
But the funeral of Patrick Eugene Holland was no normal funeral. And I was extremely nervous as I opened the door of St. Joseph’s Church in Bonnybrook, Coolock, north Dublin at 10.40am on Monday.
There were two main reasons for my trepidation.
I like to think that I’m anonymous, that nobody knows me. I’m not one of these high profile reporters whose name and photographs are everywhere. I don’t really do television, so I always think that I can walk down any street and nobody would recognise me.
But I received a phone call a few minutes before the funeral was about to begin. It let me know there was a problem. Photographers Mick O’Neill and Jim Walpole had both been assigned to cover the funeral. They had taken up positions in different areas, ready to shoot anyone who went in to the church. As I stood in the park, getting ready to go into the church, Mick rang me. He told me that some men who I really did not want to be there had just walked into the church.
Each of them would recognise me and each of them would be far from happy when they saw me.
Then there was the rest of the mourners. We knew it was going to be a small funeral, but not that small. There were only around 50 mourners - the church could easily hold 400. I knew there would be nowhere for me to hide.
But I knew I couldn’t stay away. The story was too big and there were at least three other reporters inside. I couldn’t let them get the scoop and go back empty handed to the office. Fear is a great motivator and I’m more afraid of failure than than I am of most criminals.
So I entered the church.
It went wrong as soon as I got to the door. It opened well enough, but when I tried to let it close smoothly (and quietly) behind me, it became stuck. I then spent what felt like hours trying to pull it closed.
When I turned around and faced the congregation, several people were staring at me - including the men who did not want me there. I felt their eyes boring into me.
But I’d come too far to stop. I started walking, heading to my right where a sea of pews awaited me. Like before, I tried to show no hesitation. I told myself when I was going in to turn right and that’s just what I did. The only problem was that the aisle I picked was empty; I was literally the only person on that side of the church. I thought, briefly, of stopping and heading to the centre aisle where most mourner were sitting. But I immediately ruled that out: it would have been far too conspicuous.
I picked a pew, genuflected, and sat down, glancing down at the Dictaphone hidden in my hands to make sure the red recording light was glowing red.
Fr Kevin Moore delivered a fine sermon.
Dutchy Holland was someone whom I interviewed in the Rome apartment of his lawyer Giovanni Di Stefano in April 2007. He was an immensely personable, likeable even, man.

Me interviewing Dutchy Holland in Rome. Copyright Irish Daily Star

I had a good chat with him for about an hour and it was only at the end that I knew he was a killer. I asked him if he had, as gardai are satisfied, killed Veronica Guerin. He replied simply: “No. No way.” But I could tell he was lying. He hadn’t even managed to convince himself he was innocent. So he’ll be remembered as the man who shot dead an Irish crime reporter to most people.
But not to his family.
As Fr Kevin said, they remember a loving, caring uncle and granduncle.
“Patrick’s instincts were always to be helpful to others,” he said.
“He enjoyed swimming and in his younger days saved a person from drowning by jumping in to save him.
“They recall the person that they knew and the good home and background from which he came.
“The fondness that they always had for him will linger on.”
Dutchy was loved by some people.
Just as we sat down after a Hail Mary, I felt my mobile phone vibrate in my pocket.
Because I was at the funeral and was trying to keep my head down, I was not going to answer it. But something, perhaps a sixth sense, made me take it out of my jeans pocket.
I looked at the message and froze.
It was from another reporter in the church. It simply said: “X and X have clocked you and look angry.”
Oh shit.
I put the phone back in my pocket, considered things for a millisecond and got up. There's no point in being a hero. Anyway, I had gotten what I went there for, the priest's sermon. Time to get out of dodge.
I left the pew, genuflected and walked calmly, but quickly, out of the church.
I didn’t look back until I was out of the church grounds. Then I snatched a quick glance to see if anyone had followed me out. There was nobody there.
I had parked my car about 500 metres away and made sure no-one was following me before I got into it and drove off.
It was only when I was about a mile away that I finally relaxed.
I knew I was safe. Until next time.

June 7, 2009

“I’m sorry. I’m truly, deeply, sorry.”

“There he is Jim! There.”
“Where? Where?” Jim Walpole replies, looking in two directions at the same time as he instinctively brings his camera up, ready to shoot.
“He’s standing directly opposite us, on the other side of the road,” I say, nodding as subtly as I can towards our target, Martin Kirwan. Up until a few months ago, he was one of the senior commanders of the Irish Civil Defence; a real pillar of society. Today, however, he is up in front of Judge Patrick Clyne in court 46 of Dublin District Court at the Bridewell, beside the Four Courts complex. He is up on charges of indecently assaulting a young boy 20 years ago.
We really need his photograph. We’ve been waiting at the entrance to the court for almost an hour: now he’s in our sights. We have to get him.
I need not worry: the ever dependable Jim has him. “Okay. I see him. Don’t move. Stay there and don’t move an inch – I’m going to get him from here.” For once, my bulk comes in useful as Jim snaps Kirwan over my shoulder. The target didn’t see a thing: he’s too busy hugging three women, either friends or family, who are standing by him. Kirwan then walks towards us and Jim steps out of my shadow to hose him down. Kirwan doesn’t even break his stride. He keeps walking, ignoring Jim as he fires off shot after shot from just a few feet away.
We satisfy ourselves that the man we photographed is Kirwan. Jim’s work is done: mine is just about to begin.
I follow him into the court complex. I turn into the joint entrance to two courts, go up the stairs and turn right into 46. As soon as I walk in, I scan the body of the court for Kirwan. I quickly spot him, sitting on the second bench back, with his female supporters. A few moments later, Judge Clyne enters and it begins.
Kirwan was the first person on the list and his case is called quickly. But the acoustics inside court 46 are appalling and I struggle to hear what the judge is saying. As this is an indecent assault case, I’m expecting it to be held in camera. In this case, it means the public will be told to leave and only people directly connected to the hearing will be allowed to stay – and bona fide journalists. I hear the judge mention the phrase and get ready to show my press pass to prove I’m a working reporter.
But, rather than ordering the court to be cleared, the judge gets up and walks out, telling the court he should be back in five minutes. About 10 people walk after him, heading through a door to the right of the bench.
I quickly realise this is going to pose me a problem: the judge is going to hear the case in his chambers, rather than clearing a packed court. But how the hell am I going to get in? You can’t just walk into a judge’s private room...
As my panic mounts that I’m going to miss the whole thing, the Garda sergeant who accompanied the judge out of the court comes back in. I approach him and ask if I can cover the case. He goes back to the judge and, a few moments later, returns and asks me and another reporter for our ID. Once he’s happy, he leads us into the judge’s chamber.
I was thankful for two things: firstly that the judge let us in and, secondly, that I was there to witness one of the most moving and dignified and uplifting, but heartbreaking court cases that I’ve ever attended.
There were around 12 people in the small room. As soon as we walked in, the injured party said he was happy for the case to be covered and that he wanted Kirwan named in the media – but he wanted nothing printed that could identify him. I had to say a few words to the Judge, to assure him that we would abide by that. (I get nervous when a judge addresses me: the last time was about four years ago when my mobile phone went off in court. That was fun.) Once Judge Clyne was satisfied, the proceedings began.
Kirwan had pleaded guilty in a previous hearing to several counts of indecent assault on the then boy in 1988 and 1989.
Now it was the victim’s turn to talk.
He stood opposite the judge, dignified and proud in an immaculate suit. His wife stood right beside him, on his left, gently consoling him, being there for him. His mother sat down a few feet away from him, a family friend comforting her, braced for what she was about to hear.
The victim, now in his late 30s, tried not to cry as he described the devastating effect Kirwan’s abuse has had on him for the last 20 years. He tried to keep the tears at bay, but he simply couldn’t. The more he spoke, the more upset he got. He spoke of the trust that he felt for Kirwan as a child; how he felt privileged because Kirwan treated him as an adults; how Kirwan’s abuse led to him suffering depression for more than a decade.
All the time his mother was sitting, in tears, close by. It was hard enough to look at the victim, but almost impossible to look at his mother. What, I kept wondering, must she be thinking during this victim impact statement? How hard must it be for her to sit there and listen to her beloved son talking about how this man had abused him, not once, but several times. You can only imagine the pain she has felt and will continue to feel because of the actions of Kirwan, previously a highly regarded member of the community in Dunboyne, Co Meath, where the abuse took place.
Then Kirwan opened his mouth and said something that it looked like the victim and his family had been waiting more than two decades to hear: sorry.
“I’m truly, deeply sorry,” he said as the victim held his gaze.
He offered €3,000 in compensation – but the victim said he didn’t want his money, so it was split between One in Four and the ISPCC. He’ll be sentenced in November.
I think the victim got something much more important than money that day: validation.
I’ve spoken to loads of victims of abuse over the year and they are always eager for the abuser to be named – and perhaps shamed - in the media. Looking at this case, it suddenly hit me why. The abuse that children suffer is always in secret, hidden away so that only the victim and the perpetrator know about it: one is either to afraid or ashamed to talk about it, the other is not going to tell anybody what he is doing.
So the abuser’s reputation is untrammelled: they are often pillars of society, like Kirwan. Only the victims know the truth. All the time the victim is being abused, or suffering the horrendous after effects of the abuse, the abuser is well regarded in his community. That’s why the victims oftentimes seek the abuser to be named. They want the world to know what they – and only they – have known for so long: that the person who abused them was not the saint that everyone thought.

May 4, 2009

That's a really stupid question

THE mobile buzzes gently to let me know I have a message.
I pick it up and have a look, hoping it’s a contact with a good story.
No such luck. Instead it is from a colleague who was with me at a press conference held by the Garda Representative Association in Killarney, Co Kerry a few hours earlier.
He was listening to the recording he made of the conference – and felt compelled to tell me how much of a muppet I was.
“Just listening bak to my tape,” the text said, “Why do u ask so many stupid questions? I know ur stupidity levels are out of ur control, but please reduce number of questions. Thank you.”
I thought this was actually a tremendously funny text and you really need to know the personality of the texter to realise the spirit in which it was sent. I just laughed and showed it to everyone. They laughed as well.
At least he said thank you. And he probably had a point on this occasion; I suppose I did hog the press conference somewhat.
But it was one of the few times my career where I can think of the two things in which I am interested most – crime and languages – were together. I was always fascinated by crime and studied Italian and French at university, so the press conference obviously attracted my interest. (As an aside, I’d strongly advise any young person who wants to be a reporter to study languages. It opens up a lot of doors. And if you speak a language, you’ll get foreign gigs much more often than some hack who relies on speaking loudly and slowly in English to a Spanish cop or Italian politician. My language skills have got me to some weird and wonderful locations I would otherwise never have seen were it not for work. I also think foreign language training helps with your journalese.)
The speaker at the presser was Detective Garda Tom O’Sullivan, who is attached to the Interpol National Central Bureau at Garda HQ in Phoenix Park. He’s also a qualified interpreter and translator; so he clearly knows his stuff.
He was worried that there was no vetting in their home countries of foreign interpreters working for gardai in Ireland: there’s not much point checking them on the Irish system without being able to confirm that they are conviction free in whatever part of the world they come from.
He was also concerned at the possibility that foreign gangs could plant members of their outfit into a Garda station as an interpreter. That stands to reason. If there are no checks in someone’s own country, it’s quite clear the system is open to abuse. His points were well made. I hope I didn’t bore him too much.
But I did ask more than my fair share of questions, hence my colleague’s kind text message.
Like most newspaper reporters, I tend not to ask too many questions at press conferences. In my line of work, the pressers I attend are usually after murders. I, and other paper people, usually leave the questions to the broadcasters. They need quotes from the local superintendent, or chief, for the TV or radio. They need the basics: the what, when and where of the murder for their next broadcast. They have to be there for that – we lazy paper reporters can simply lift those details from the news. There’s not much point in asking the who or why at any press conference. They won’t tell you. So it’s much better to speak to someone off the record, and away from the cameras, for the really important information. In addition, broadcasters like to be seen, and heard, asking the questions – I think their editors believe that helps their station brand. That’s fair enough.
And, sometimes, you don’t have any questions to ask. It’s actually hard, particularly at the start of your career to ask questions of someone, especially in authority. Sometimes your mind goes blank, followed by your face turning red.
Also, you really have to be fully prepared before asking some people questions – any weakness and your part and you target will turn on you. The two people I prepared most before I rang them were Ian Paisley Junior and President Mary McAleese, when she was a law professor at Queen’s University of Belfast in the mid 1990s. They were both the same. They let you ask a question and then demolished you if there was any wriggle room, or mistake, in what you had put to them. It was great training, however. You soon learned to stop asking silly questions.
For me, the worst I ever heard of was in the aftermath of a gangland murder last year in Dublin. There was a press conference the next day, a Saturday, so I wasn’t there. But a pal rang me a short time afterwards, convulsed with laughter. The victim had been shot as he enjoyed a pint in a pub, before the killers fled.
In the scrum of the press conference the next day, the Super was fielding the usual questions, when a hack asked him: “So, did the killers make an immediate escape?” What did the reporter think the gunmen did, have a pint themselves before casually strolling out of the pub?
Sometimes it’s better not to stick your head above the parapet at a press conference – or you’ll get a text like I did at the GRA.

April 5, 2009

I spy with my little eye...

A sudden movement in the rear view mirror catches my eye. A car is coming towards us from behind. It weaves from left to right as it drives up the road, coming to a stop a few feet behind us. I turn around and look. It takes a few instants for my brain to figure out that the writing on the bonnet – ECILOP in thick blue lettering – is supposed to be read in a mirror.
“Oh Shit, Mick,” I hiss at my colleague, photographer Mick O’Neill. He’s sitting in the back of the people carrier. “What?” he asks. He still keeps his eyes on our target, a building 100 yards away on a road that snakes away from the one where we are sitting. “It’s the cops.” I say. “Oh. Right,” he says, calmly. I feel my face burning. I hate cops coming up to you when you are on a stake-out. You never know whether they are going to say `cool’ and leave us at it – or tell us they’ll arrest us if we don’t move on. We’ve had complaints, you know.
The complaint came from a local citizen. As the cops grilled us in a polite and friendly way, he lurked at his driveway, about 10 yards away.
It came as no surprise that the cops were on to us. We’d been sitting at the same spot for, by that stage, three days, or around 36 hours. In the movies, you can do a stake-out for that length of time with no problem – in the real world, you’re spotted within minutes. After that, it’s only a question of whether people confront you themselves, or call the police: in this case it was both.
Mick and I were in Locks Heath, a suburb of Southampton. We were looking for Bob Campion, the third leg of the ménage a trois involving David Bourke and Jean Gilbert. While we were there, the jury in Bourke’s murder trial was out, considering its verdict. Campion had not come over to Ireland for the trial; we knew we had to get him. By the time we got there on the Friday, he’d already down an exclusive sit-down interview with The Irish Daily Mail and, as it turned out, the Irish Independent used a local agency to get a few words with him. No pressure, so.
The only problem was there was no sign of him when we arrived. After about four hours sitting 30 odd yards from his ground floor flat, I lost the head and decided to knock. There was no space for Mick to get a photo as the flat is surrounded by trees and a shed. But at least we’d know if he was there. Foremost in my mind was the fact that we’d be wasting time and money if we camped out here – and he was not. Or worse, just say some paper had bought him up and he was enjoying some hotel somewhere, while we were sitting outside his flat in a rented Zafira for days on end.
But when I knocked, there was no sign of him and it looked as of the flat was deserted. So we settled down to wait. And wait. And wait. And then wait some more.
People started no give us strange looks after around 30 minutes. I was in the driver’s seat; Mick in the back. Mick looking towards the flat complex, me looking in the rear view mirror, just in case. At first, people simply walked past, assuming we were workmen or visitors to other houses. Then, when they came back, they saw we were still there and, understandibly, became suspicious. Nobody approached us on day one: we were there from midday to 11pm. Nor was there any sign of Campion.
The next day, we got there at 4.30am. We had learned that Campion did night work, so we had to get there early, just in case he finished his shift at that time. We parked up, just as dawn was breaking. Nothing. Not a thing all day. By 8pm, the night had come – Mick remarked it was the first time he’s ever seen the dawn and dusk in the same job. I had to agree. We’d whiled away the hours listening to radio, talking crap and constantly scanning the area for Campion. We'd even played I Spy. I won hands down. I broke his serve when I guessed AV was the air vent on an old people’s home opposite us. He couldn’t get D for daffodils, either.
At around 3pm a neighbour approached us. “Curiosity has got the better of me...” “Ah,” I said. “We’re journalists from Ireland and we’re here hoping to talk to a man who lives down there,” I said, pointing to Campion’s flat. “He hasn’t done anything wrong, but he has been mentioned in a high profile murder case. He was the boyfriend of a woman who was killed by her husband. We just want to give him an opportunity to talk to us. But we have to wait for him to come...” “That’s fine,” he smiled. “Very interesting, actually. A murder case, you say. How exciting.”
So the hours passed. The neighbour would occasionally come out of his house, see us and nod conspiratorially towards us.
We were back the next day, a Sunday, at the same time. By 1pm we were going out of our minds with boredom, so the arrival of the second man at least broke the tedium.
I lowered the window and greeted him. “Hello,” he said. “I’m the local neighbourhood watch secretary and I just wonder what you are doing here. You have been noticed by a good few people...”
I went through the rigmarole of explanation. He then asked me for ID – something at which I silently bridled. There’s only one group in society to whom I have to show credentials – police. Everyone else can kindly go away. I made an exception in this case – hoping that would placate him and he wouldn’t call the boys in blue. I grudgingly showed him my card.
He nodded and walked away. But 15 minutes later the cops arrived. Mr Neighbourhood Watch had tried to contact my newsroom on the numbers on my card: the only problem was the numbers were Irish and did not have the international code. Hence him not getting through.
The police were actually fine. They took our details, listened to our story and said we weren’t doing anything wrong. Mr Neighbourhood Watch sidled up as we were talking to the police. He made some comment to officer before turning round – and walking straight into a lamppost.
“Now that’s Karma,” I said to the cop, who stifled a laugh.
The cops went away and we waited some more. It was actually the Monday, after 48 hours watching, that Campion emerged. “There he is,” Mick shouted. He hosed him down with his camera from the car, loosing off maybe 30 shots. When he gave the go ahead, certain that he had good pics, I got out of the car and approached him. “Mr Campion, I’m a journalist from Ireland...” “Good for you,” he said and kept walking.
But I managed to persuade him to talk, even though he kept walking up the road. All the while, Mr Neighbourhood Watch was watching from a distance – roaring at us to leave Campion alone.
But the wait was worth it. It always is.