March 22, 2009

“I can’t face that. I can’t. I can’t even think about that.”

As she gets out of the car, I softly shake her hand. I thank her for the interview and tell her I’m going to say a little prayer for her daughter. She smiles, sadly, nods her head and walks away.
I sit back into the car. My colleague Gary Ashe is doing the driving. After a few seconds, he glances over at me and says: “She’s way past the crying stage, isn’t she?” “Yeah,” I reply quietly. We drive on, heading to our hotel, job done. Audrey Fitzpatrick walks into the bar and back to her search for her little girl. Back to her living nightmare.
Gary was right. Audrey was indeed way past the crying stage. It’s more than a year since her daughter Amy Fitzpatrick disappeared as she walked home from a friend’s house in Calahonda, near Fuengirola on Spain’s Costa Del Sol. In the 14 months since her disappearance, Audrey has campaigned tirelessly – desperately - for Amy; for her not to be forgotten. But there has been nothing in return. No sightings; no phone calls; no emails; no sign of life.
But still she goes on with her campaign. Always fighting. Always available. She agreed to meet me and Gary with only half an hour’s notice. We were in Spain last week on another matter – the unsuccessful appeal of Dermot McArdle – around 200 kilometres from Calahonda in the city of Granada, at this court. But we were flying out of Malaga, which was only 30 odd minutes from Audrey, so I gave her a call to see if she would facilitate us with a quick interview. You can never tell when you make such a call: some people won’t be interested, others will be happy to talk.
As soon as I introduced myself over the phone, I knew Audrey would talk to us. She readily agreed to meet us half an hour later in Tricky Ricky’s pub, a de facto HQ forn the Amy campaign. When we got there, she was standing at the bar with a friend. She gave us a big smile and told us she was delighted we had called – anything, she said, to keep Amy’s name in the papers.
But she admitted it’s getting increasingly more difficult to keep the campaign going. Neither she nor her partner, Dave Mahon, have been able to work since Amy disappeared, but they have spent a fortune. “How much?” I ask. “Oh, easily over €200,000,” she replies. She tells me that Dave was able to check his mobile phone and see that he alone has spent €10,000 on credit for it since January 2008.
They had a decent amount of savings, but now they are in serious trouble. Dave is trying to get back into work, but his field – property – is even more badly hit in Spain than in Ireland. They have not paid their €2,000 a month mortgage since Amy vanished – and now the bank have warned them they are in real danger of losing their house.
That would be, she says, devastating on two counts: firstly, no one wants to lose their home. But, probably more importantly, it’s Amy’s home. “I am really desperate to keep the house because Amy could walk back in at any second,” Audrey insisted.
She was telling us this as Gary drive us back to the pub. Minutes earlier, we had taken Audrey to the spot where Amy was last seen, moments after leaving her friend’s house in New Year’s Night. It was obviously distressing for her, but she managed to pose with a poster of Amy for us.
But you can only imagine what was going through her head as she stood at the spot where her young daughter was walking when somebody took her, for that's what probably happened. The likelihood of Amy running away and not being in contact with friends or family is too unrealistic to even contemplate. And as I looked at her graciously posing for Gary, a single thought kept bouncing around my head: how could any parent deal with things Audrey is having to deal with?
How can she function on a day to day basis not knowing where her girl is? She must just be on auto pilot. The agony must be unbearable. Every waking minute, second,is taken up with looking for Amy.
Which is worse, I wondered: the thought that something horrible has happened to Amy –or the fear that something horrible is still happening to her. Both must be unbearable.I asked Audrey, somewhat nervously, if she had accepted the possibility that Amy could be dead. “No,” she said, quickly. “I can’t face that.
I can’t. I can’t even think about that.”
Instead, she is convinced that someone, perhaps someone who knew her, has taken her. She is hoping against hope that the person still has her and will let her free one day.
Maybe events more than 1500 kilometres north east will prove her right: maybe you never should give up hope.
It was nothing more than a coincidence, but while we were talking to Audrey, Josef Fritzl was in the dock in the Austrian town of St. Poelten. It was the Tuesday of Fritzl’s trial when we met Audrey. On that day, Elizabeth Fritzl’s video evidence was played to the jury, so some of the shocking details had emerged by the time Audrey spoke to us.
For me the parallels were stomach churning. As we drove away from meeting her, and after Gary’s comments, all I could think about was this: just say some fucker has Amy in a dungeon somewhere? Just say that poor, defenceless, girl is going through the same hell that Elizabeth suffered? A shiver went down my spine at even the thought of it.
And, as we drive away under the Spanish sun, I say a silent prayer for Amy.

March 8, 2009

“We’re an army fighting an army.”

He sits across from me in the quiet pub. He has a soft and friendly face. After only a few minutes chatting I can tell he’s the sort of fella with whom, in normal circumstances, you’d quite happily shoot the breeze as you drink a pint. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I actually l liked him, but the truth is I got on famously with him. We connected with each other. We could have been friends in other circumstances.
But these weren’t normal circumstances.
The man facing me was far from being a normal person. He was actually a leading member of the Real IRA and he was telling me why he was fighting his war. And all the time, when he’s explaining to me why it’s necessary to take the war to the British, why the Sinn Fein leadership can’t call themselves republicans, why they are the real IRA and why he’ll keep on at it as long as is necessary, there’s one thought swirling through my head. As I listen to him I just keep thinking `how can this guy be so, well, normal?’ He should have two heads or something.
It had taken me months to get to meet him.
It was early 2003 and my friend John Mooney and I were working on our book, Black Operations, the secret war against the Real IRA, at the time. We could have taken the relatively easy way out and relied on the police on either side of the border for our information. We, especially John, had gotten a lot out of the good guys, but we both knew we needed more. We knew there was no point writing about the Real IRA unless we spoke to them.
I’d long had a professional interest in them. After the Omagh bomb in August 1998, they rang me to declare firstly their responsibility for the atrocity and then, a few hours later, a ceasefire. I can still hear the tinny voice – caused by a distorter – as the anonymous caller gave me the statement. When I started to ask him questions, the cheeky fucker simply said: “Michael, we picked you because we thought you wouldn’t ask us anything.” Thanks a bunch.
But receiving a phone call from a paramilitary organisation is one thing: getting to meet a representative face to face is another. How could we get them to talk? There was no secret formula; all we could do was work and work and work until someone agreed to meet us. We went at them from the outside. We spoke to one person who came to trust us. He let another person know we were sound. Finally, after months, he told me to expect a call from someone else.
The call eventually came late on a Thursday, I recall.
It was a private number and he told me his name. It actually wasn’t his name, but the name I had been waiting for. “I understand you want to meet.” “Yes.” “Okay, I’ll see you at 10.30am on Saturday. Be outside XXXXX.” “Grand. How will I know who to meet?” “I’ll know you.” The phone then went dead.
I arrived 10 minutes early. I stood waiting outside the pub in Dublin, nervously scanning the street to see if anyone coming towards me looked like a terrorist. Then I noticed movement to my left. Stupidly, I hadn’t checked the pub itself. He came out of it, quietly called my name and beckoned me in.
As I sat opposite him, I quickly sized him up. Jesus, I thought, he looks like a regular head.
What he was saying, however, was miles away from regular. In a quite well known suburban pub, we spoke about the creation of the organisation, why they split from the Provos in late 1997. He told me of Garda Special Branch bursting in on him and getting him to the ground at gunpoint, his arms behind his back. He spoke somewhat unkindly of one cop I knew –although naturally I didn’t let him know I knew the detective: he really didn’t like him.
He was an extremely articulate man. He told me that, for more than a decade, the IRA had not been killing for the Republic. He and others had seen the writing on the wall for that long. They knew the Provos were shaping up for a settlement well short of a United Ireland. What, he asked, was the point in killing for anything less than a 32 county republic?
He really did believe he was a soldier. More, he believed he was a senior commander of the only, real, army in Ireland. I clearly remember him saying that the strategy was changing from bombs (like Omagh) to killing a soldier. “We’re an army fighting an army,” he said. “We should be taking them on. How better to show that we don’t accept them being here than to go after them?”
The years passed and the meeting – and another I had with him – faded in the memory. Once the book was done, I moved on. Sure, the RIRA were largely a spent force. I concentrated on reporting in drugs, paedophilia and husbands killing their wives. I merely cast an occasional glance at them. I thought, stupidly, they were finished as a force.
All that changed on Saturday night.
John Mooney, who has kept up a professional interest in the RIRA, rang me late in the evening to tell me what had happened in Antrim. I was shocked. He wasn’t. Coincidentally, a few hours earlier he had filed a piece for the Irish edition of the Sunday Times warning the dissidents were intent on shooting members of the security forces. And then the memory of my meeting with the senior man came back to me – especially his belief, hope even, that British soldiers should be targeted.
Most people in Ireland will have been horrified by what happened on Saturday night. But some, maybe even him, will probably be celebrating in a pub tonight.

March 2, 2009

Who's the rat?

He’ll have to go back one day.
He’ll have to walk in and attempt to get back down to work and concentrate on whatever tasks are assigned to him. He’ll have to try, somehow, to put to the back of his mind the terror that has been visited upon him just because he happens to work there
But, most of all, Shane Travers will have to ignore the fact that somewhere in the College Green branch of the Bank of Ireland is the person who betrayed him.
And what’s worse, he won’t have a clue who it is. It could be the guy who passes him on the corridor; it could be the woman who stands a few feet away from him as he goes outside for some air. It could be just about anybody.
Someone in that building is directly responsible for what happened to Shane Travers last Thursday. He, or she, is directly responsible for his girlfriend Stephanie Smith, her mother Joan and nephew Stephen being held at gunpoint, tied up, bundled into a van and dumped in an abandoned house in Co Meath.
Someone, somewhere, in that building sold out his or her colleagues for probably a few hundred grand.
When the dust dies down over the massive Tiger kidnapping last week, when we’ve all largely forgotten about it, Shane Travers will still have to face his demons. He will, unless he is posted somewhere else in the bank, have to work in the same building as the person who set him up. That will be tough – he’s bound to be looking more closely than ever before at everyone who works there, wondering was he or she the one?
As the Garda investigation continues into the raid, officers are fighting several fires at the same time. They are obviously desperate to get their hands on the rest of the €7.6 million that was stolen in the raid. They recovered some €1.8 million when they stopped a car after a chase on the M50 late on Friday night. It was some feat to get any of the money back within such a short period of time - but it means almost €6 million of new and unused Euro notes are still out there.
The Garda units will also be trying to gather enough evidence for the robbers themselves to be charged.
They’re one of the most vicious and prolific in Dublin. They’re all young men, in their 20s, and some of them have a fearsome reputation for violence. In one instance recently one of the 10 or so people involved in the gang even followed a Garda to his home and poured acid on his car, before leaving two shotgun cartridges on the vehicle. If they do that to a Garda, what would they have done to Shane Travers if he put up a fight?
But another key element of the Garda probe will be to get the rat in the bank.
It’s inconceivable that the gang had no internal help in this one – they simply knew too much about the bank. Not only did they know where Shane Travers lived, but they also had key details on other workers in the vault. For example, they gave Mr Travers photographs of the homes of several of his colleagues to show them when he went in to the bank on Friday morning. And they also gave him a photograph they had of one of his bosses. The not so subtle message was clear: if the money is not handed over, we are all in trouble.
That is one explanation why the tight security procedures within the bank were not followed on Friday morning – it wasn’t just one worker who feared for his life; it was all of them.
The gangs and the gardai have been fighting a war for the best part of a decade when it comes to banks and cash. When the criminals carried out good old fashioned armed robberies in branches, the banks invested significant resources in upgrading security there. So then the robbers targeted cash in transit vans – and Achilles heel in terms of security. So, again, the security companies reacted by beefing up security there. Then it was the turn of the criminals to target the weakest link of any security system: the people who use it. Vulnerable security staff were targeted in their own homes and ordered to drop off cash – or else their loved ones would be harmed. Again, cash companies reacted by bringing in new security systems. In the case of security vans, for example, money can only be released centrally, staff have no access to cash and the vehicle itself is monitored by satellite.
When it comes to banks, like College Green, a single employee can’t simply walk in and take out €7.6 million in hard cash. There are other layers of security that will prevent that. Well, that was the theory – but last week showed criminal gangs can be cunning as well as vicious.
They knew they’d fail if they targeted Travers alone. So they encouraged his colleagues to cooperate by informing them they were in just as much danger as he was. The Bank was just lucky the gang didn’t get away with more cash: they gave him four laundry bags, which he filled with €7.6 million. If they’d given him more bags, he’d have filled them too. There was around €100 million in the vault – God knows how much they could have gotten away with.
While gardai are hopeful that they have enough evidence to charge suspects in relation to the incident tonight, it’s clear there are people out there who were heavily involved in this who have not been arrested. They’re sitting back, waiting for the fuss to die down, waiting for the time they can move the cash out of Ireland. All the notes are new, so it will have to be laundered abroad. But, even if they only get one third of their face value, it’s still a huge amount of money.
And there’ll be one bank employee who will be waiting to get a significant cut in return for an act of treachery – unless the gardai come knocking first.