Gangs and guns on Dublin streets

DUBLIN, Ireland — It is like a scene from the Sopranos. Two gangland figures are sitting in a Lexus car in a suburban street on a summer evening. Their automobile is rammed from behind by a stolen Audi 6. Two masked men jump out and open fire on the Lexus with semi-automatic handguns, killing the men instantly.

The assassins drive to a deserted street a mile away, douse the car with gas, set it alight and escape. This professional hit — the killers are said to have received 40,000 euros ($50,000) each to “whack” the victims — took place in the Clondalkin suburb of Dublin on June 28.

The men slain were brothers Kenneth and Paul Corbally, aged 32 and 35. Their murder brought the number of gun homicides in Ireland to 15 since the start of the year.

The impunity with which their executioners acted underlined the fact that gun crime in Ireland — a country of just over 4 million people where possession of handguns is severely restricted — is rising fast and is practically out of control.

According to the Department of Justice, there have been only 23 convictions for 198 gun murders in the republic since 1998.

“It’s just appalling that it has come to this; that human life is this cheap and professional killers roam the streets,” said Labour member of parliament, Pat Rabbitte, in whose constituency the murder of the Corbally brothers took place.

Just as in the Sopranos television series, in which rival New Jersey mafia members kill each other in territorial fights, the gun homicides in Ireland arise mainly from feuds between rival gangs, usually for control of illegal drug sales. Their members live in a disadvantaged society and operate by their own rules.

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern admitted after the latest killings that the gardai, the Irish police, often do not get the cooperation of the associates of gangland figures gunned down on the streets. Rather they take revenge in what he called “tit-for-tat killings.”

The Corballys belonged to one of two criminal gangs based in Dublin’s Ballyfermot district and it wasn’t long before an associate of the rival gang met a similar fate. On July 9, a masked gunman walked into an animal feed warehouse in the west of the city and singled out 34-year-old Colm Owens. He coolly shot Owens several times in the head in front of horrified coworkers, ran out and was driven off at speed by an accomplice.

Owens was linked to a notorious gang leader, Eamon Dunne, who was shot dead in a Dublin bar in April.

The use of guns to settle scores in Ireland’s criminal underworld has risen sharply in the last decade, according to a survey by Liz Campbell of Aberdeen University.

In 1998 firearms were used in 7.8 percent of all homicides in the republic, but in 2008 this had risen to 38.2 percent. In England and Wales, where there are also prohibitive gun laws, the trend has been in the opposite direction. Gun killings declined from 7.2 percent to 6.8 percent of homicides in the same period.

In Ireland the number of gun killings is still low compared to a “pistolized” society such as the United States, said Campbell in "Responding to Gun Crime in Ireland," published in May by the British Journal of Criminology. The homicide rate in Ireland is almost two per 100,000, twice the rate of a few years ago but much lower than the five per 100,000 in the U.S., which has the highest murder rate of any industrialized democracy.

Just like the fictional crime boss Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini in the HBO series, the leading gangland figures in Dublin tend to be family men with children with Catholic backgrounds.

At the funeral of the Corbally brothers, Father Seamus Ryan, parish priest of Ballyfermot in west Dublin, pointed out that Kenneth Corbally’s four children and Paul Corbally’s son and stepdaughter had been left without their fathers.

In noting the increase in serious and fatal gun crime in Ireland, Campbell criticized the more punitive measures such as longer prison sentences taken by the government as inadequate, arguing that the focus should be on social deprivation in areas of Dublin and the culture of masculinity that made young men into killers. There should be more gardai on the streets and more emphasis on education to turn young men out of poverty and away from drugs and crime, she argued.

The 15,000-strong Irish police force is mostly unarmed but has an Emergency Response Unit equipped with automatic weapons. Its members are increasingly visible patrolling districts of Dublin areas affected by gang violence. However as Rabbitte put it, “just one gun murder in eight is likely to result in somebody ending up behind bars,” and things are unlikely to improve anytime in the near future.