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Going underground

Going underground
Nicola Tallant ALL PICS: Cian Redmond

Nicola Tallant on gangland crime and the rule of law

Award-winning Sunday World crime journalist Nicola Tallant speaks to Mary Hallissey about gangland crime, Ireland’s endemic drug scene, and how it’s corroding respect for the rule of law.

Nicola Tallant gives a wintry smile.

“I’ve been asked by members of the legal profession if I make up stories published in the Sunday World,” she says.

But the award-winning journalist’s pieces about Ireland’s gangland criminals are all too real.

Going underground

Going underground

During our meeting, Tallant is recognised repeatedly, suggesting an avid public following. She is in demand as a journalist, and the scope of her work has widened in recent years to take in books, radio and TV, podcasting, and traditional print journalism in the Sunday World.

She is ‘platform-agnostic’ as regards the distribution of her stories, once her work increases public awareness of the criminal underworld. She believes it doesn’t matter how people get their news – whether tabloid, broadsheet or any other medium – once the public is aware that endemic drug use in this country is corroding respect for the rule of law.

She laments the misplaced snobbery that disdains tabloid journalism, since the ‘red-tops’ do most of the investigative crime reporting in this country.

Town called Malice

Corruption goes hand-in-hand with widespread drug use, Nicola points out. The corrupting power of drug money has wafted its way into public administration, and Tallant has no doubt that some gardaí, civil servants, customs officers, and other administrators are on the take. One garda has already been jailed for passing information to criminals.

Cocaine use is everywhere in middle-class Ireland, the journalist points out, from surgeons to solicitors, barristers to businesspeople. And corruption – of police forces, the legal profession and civil administration – has inevitably followed the rise of criminal drug gangs.

“The new garda anti-corruption unit is probably very vital at the moment,” Nicola comments.

She is quite certain that democracy, and the rule of law, is now under serious threat in this country. From Tallant’s perspective, each arm of the State, including the legal profession, is now a target.

Resource-rich criminals can now do their drug business via encrypted technology, in part because of the globalisation of crime. More and more cocaine is being produced in Colombia, and in purer form, and drug-users no longer need to travel for their supply, even in small-town rural Ireland. This availability has led to the normalisation of drug use.

“I can see a bigger picture, and I can see that every line of coke, every €50 to €100 spent on weekend recreational drug use, is going straight into the pockets of the likes of the Kinahan Organised Crime Group, who are pouring misery onto underprivileged communities in this country.

“They have become so powerful that they are now taking on the very foundations of our State. They are challenging the judicial system.”

Funeral pyre

Tallant points to the murders in Europe of both lawyers and journalists who have been involved in gangland criminal trials. She is adamant that such narco-terrorism will shortly arrive on our shores. A super-cartel has now taken over the European cocaine market. “These are a group of street dealers that, within five years, became billionaires,” says Tallant.

Netherlands’ crime journalist Peter R De Vries was shot in the head five times while leaving a TV studio on 6 July, dying nine days later. And in September 2019, Dutch lawyer Derk Wiersum was shot and killed near his home in Amsterdam. At the time of his death, Wiersum was the lawyer for a state witness, Nabil Bakkali. The latter’s brother was also shot dead in 2018.

Before the lawyer’s murder, Dutch justice minister Ferd Grapperhaus warned that the Netherlands was in danger of becoming a narco-state, with an economy dependent on trade in illegal drugs.

“What happened two years ago in Europe should have been a line in the sand, and here we are again,” says Tallant. “To me, it isn’t only journalists who should be aware of this threat – it is the legal profession in Ireland that needs to sit up and take notice. We blindly think that wouldn’t happen here. It bloody well would, in a minute!” she says.

The bitterest pill

“There are already 60 members of the Kinahan Organised Crime Group behind bars in this country, some awaiting trial, but most are already convicted on organised crime charges in the Special Criminal Court.

“We are dealing with organised crime on a day-to-day basis, and these criminals are a major threat because they have no respect for society. The more coke that’s bought on demand in this country, the more empowered they become.

“And they take on every level of the belief system in democracy and what it should be. They are grooming kids as soldiers of their drug gangs. They are infecting communities with fear, and yet we are willingly, blindly, funding them to do that, with our coke habits.”

Cocaine is a middle-class drug, she points out, while heroin and crack are used in working-class areas. Tallant believes that it’s time to shame cocaine users. The same people who are ultra-fussy about the provenance of their food will buy cocaine, oblivious to the violence and exploitation endemic in its production and shipping.

“How did we make people aware that it wasn’t cool to smoke cigarettes, or to drink and get behind the wheel of a car?” she asks. “These are educated people. I couldn’t buy or use that stuff because I know where it’s come from, and I know who’s getting the money.”

She despairs of the prevalence and sheep-like acceptability of drug use in Ireland.

Tallant arches a finely shaped eyebrow: “It’s not good fun to be with people who are on cocaine, because they are just obnoxious and overconfident. And coke makes you talk, so it’s dangerous for people in certain occupations.”

News of the world

Nicola Tallant is clearly formidable, and knew from the age of 12 that she would be a reporter.

She trained as a journalist at the College of Commerce (Rathmines) in the early 1990s. Job placements ensured that would-be reporters were snapped up. She quickly achieved success on a variety of national titles. At the early age of 26, she was appointed news editor on the Mirror.

“I didn’t last a year,” she recollects. “I hated sending people out on stories that I wanted to be on. I actually felt cheated.”

Nicola then jointly set up her own news agency, supplying copy to numerous British titles during the last of the boom years for the newspaper industry.

While the agency work was highly lucrative, eventually Tallant wanted a return to digging deeper into news.

“We just cleaned up, and though it was exciting in the beginning to make lots of money, it was a bit soulless, because there wasn’t time to do any decent stories,” she says.

Several editors had asked her to get in touch should she want a change. She approached the Sunday World in 2008, and the deal was done in 20 minutes that Nicola would provide ten front-pages splashes each year.

“If I went on a job, I always wanted to come back with the bacon,” she said of her delivery of a string of crime scoops.

The modern world

She notes that lack of concentration and lack of ability with technology are two common traits in press reporters.

“Like all journalists, I’m not very good at concentrating on something for a long time. I can throw myself at a thing, but I have a short focus, and when I’m done, I never want to see it again. It’s part of the personality.

“Also, when I’m interviewing journalists, from across the world, none of them can work out how to use the simplest of equipment,” she says.

“It’s been a really exciting job. I’ve been all over the world, to places I’d never have been to in ordinary life, and have met and spoken to everyone from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high.”

She describes sitting in the back of a surveillance van in the small hours, and says it’s “quite the buzz” when a stakeout reveals a vital photo or piece of intel. “It yields a far richer story,” she says.

There were hair-raising stories, such as the time a Dublin punter brought a box of unused bullets he had found dumped at a bus stop into the newsroom.

Another tipster asked if the Sunday World could pay for her taxi to the office. The woman arrived in reception wearing a hospital gown and wheeling a drip, and passed on valuable information about a murder.

How does Nicola know who to trust?

“That is always a difficult one, and it’s becoming more difficult, because a lot of criminals want to pass information using encryption.” Encryption distorts the normal trust-building mechanisms, she says.

“Without seeing someone and meeting them, you’ve lost so many of your senses, of who they are and what their motive is. Sometimes, they are giving you information that has the potential to get somebody killed. This is not celebrity stuff about who’s having an affair. It couldn’t be more serious.

“In every relationship, trust builds, but encryption distorts that, because you have to work out why you are getting the information. It’s choppy waters to work out how to do that properly, and how to be responsible.”

By the nature of her work as a crime journalist, Tallant deals with people with ‘lower moral standards’. “Most of the people I am writing about are convicted criminals, who are, by their very nature, not honest or law-abiding. A lot of them are dangerous people. It’s a very difficult world to navigate. Everything is given to you for a reason, so it’s important not to get sucked into false narratives.”

Five o’clock hero

Her podcast, The Witness – In His Own Words, tells how the courage of young Joey O’Callaghan helped to secure two gangland murder convictions. O’Callaghan started work on a milk round at the age of 12, but the float was a cover for a sordid drug dealership, which led him down a dangerous path. He eventually entered the witness-protection programme, but felt abandoned when he struggled with his new identity, with only a phone number for a liaison officer (who had retired) as his contact point.

Joey was eventually diagnosed with PTSD and OCD, but is now doing well with proper treatment and medication.

“It’s not good enough. He lost ten years of his life,” Tallant says. “The witness-protection programme is a vital element in the State’s fight against organised crime, but I don’t think it’s acceptable to send a witness away, signed off, with no aftercare. Life doesn’t work like that, and each individual should be monitored and given proper psychological help.”

Mary Hallissey is a journalist with the Law Society Gazette

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