‘This is Irish journalism’s darkest day. For the first time, a journalist has been murdered for daring to write about our criminal underworld and daring to chronicle the lives of the brutal people who inhabit it.’ (Aengus Fanning, Irish Independent, 27 June 1996)
It has been twenty years since Sunday Independent journalist and mother of one, Veronica Guerin, was gunned down and brutally murdered on the Naas Road. Even though I never knew her, I think about her on her anniversary every year, and as an aspiring journalist I find myself asking the same question: was Veronica’s murder, described by the late Aengus Fanning as ‘an attack on democracy’, an act of bravery or sheer naivety on Veronica’s part?
I was twelve years old when the news of Veronica’s murder was reported on the six-one news on the 26 June 1996. I remember how my mother put her hand to her mouth and my father shook his head in disbelief. Even though I had no real interest yet in the nitty-gritty of Ireland’s politics, I knew that this shooting was significant. The images of the bloodied, smashed up car will stay ingrained in my mind forever. It was the first time that I’d ever heard of a journalist being targeted in such a brutal way, and the first time I’d considered that being a female journalist could be dangerous.
Two years later I would sit up way past my bedtime to watch a documentary detailing the extent of the drug problem in Dublin. I saw images of people shooting up in broad daylight, some who had committed petty crimes in order to fund their addiction. Some of them were in their early teens just as I was. This was my first introduction to what the sordid world of heroin and cocaine addiction looked like: needles everywhere, people sitting in their own excrement, so high on drugs that they barely knew what day it was.
Drug addiction and supply were still widespread problems, even after Veronica’s murder, but at least the problem had been thrown into the consciousness of the public who could no longer hide behind the predictability of their everyday lives.
Veronica was not merely a journalist, she was also a wife and mother. Bringing a child into the world is a great responsibility and protecting them from evil is an even greater one. I’m a chicken. My writing is important, but I wouldn’t be willing to risk the safety of my child over it. But ironically, Veronica was most likely thinking of her son and trying to ensure that he wouldn’t grow up in the same horrible culture. Sadly, in trying to protect her son, Veronica became the target of three shootings (one through a window at home, one gunshot wound to her leg and the fatal shooting through the window of her car on the Naas road).
Indeed, there is much debate as to whether her actions were heroic or plain ridiculous. Emily O’Reilly, writer of Veronica Guerin: The Life and Death of a Crime Reporter was accused by many critics as deliberately setting out to sully Veronica’s name in the name of professional jealousy. In her book O’Reilly challenges everything that we know and believe about Veronica. She says that Veronica lied about her age in order to be accepted into the Ogra Fianna Fail, and points out how she was accused of fabrication when reporting on the Bishop Comiskey Case. In addition, Veronica is depicted as being selfish, putting her career before the safety of her child. She continued to write despite being repeatedly targeted by gang members, even after John Gilligan *allegedly* threatened to rape and kill her son.
However Cate Blanchett, who played Veronica Guerin in the movie of the same title, says that such criticism of Veronica is too harsh, and in an interview she pointed out that being ‘a female journalist, the questions of her as a wife and a mother [such as] ‘how could she do this’ were asked in a way that wouldn’t be asked of a man.’
Veronica is now dead twenty years, and her husband Graham Turley observed in a recent interview with the Irish Mirror (published on 8 May, written by Blaithnaid Murphy) that: ‘Twenty years down the road we are back to stage one. It is getting to the stage where there is literally a shooting on the streets every day of the week.’ Drug abuse in Dublin City centre has again reached an all-time high to the point where the provision of safe injection centres and the legalisation of cannabis are slowly creeping onto the political agenda. Despite Veronica’s efforts, there is more focus on the petty criminals rather than the drug dealers who are undoubtedly profiting massively from the sale of these drugs.
So, if this is the case, was Veronica’s death in vain, or more to the point, did she bring about her own fate by playing with fire? I don’t think so, to be honest. If we really believe that it was partly Veronica’s own fault that she was murdered, we essentially exonerate her murderers of full responsibility for their crimes. Unfortunately, we live in Ireland where we typically try to understand the motives of those who break the law. On the whole, we try to see the best in people, including those who commit such despicable crimes.
True, Veronica Guerin may not have been perfect, but at the end of the day, she was the victim of the greatest crime there is – murder. Her methods may have been invasive and unorthodox, but she was still trying to do her job. Perhaps she did take on more than she could handle, but she paid the ultimate price. And her legacy will live on through her family, her articles, television documentaries and films, reminding us that drugs will always be a problem in Irish society unless we find a way to disempower drug barons and provide proper rehabilitation options for recovering addicts.
If Veronica’s life and death has taught us anything, it should be that the efforts of one person really do matter, and that if we join together and create a unified front progress, however slow, will eventually follow. But this won’t ever happen if we sit back and do nothing.
RIP Veronica, and thank you for trying to make our country a better place for children like yours and mine.