Gangland shootings haunt Irish election campaign

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Dublin (AFP) - Tit-for-tat executions on the streets of Dublin and threats to journalists have thrust gangland crime and a violent history to the forefront of Ireland's election campaign ahead of Friday's vote.

The war between two rival criminal gangs with roots in the north and south of the capital culminated with masked men with AK-47 rifles storming a boxing event earlier this month, in an audacious daylight assault that brought armed police patrols and checkpoints to the streets of Dublin.

One man was killed and two injured in the attack which targeted the Spain-based Kinahan gang and which was followed a few days later by the retaliatory assassination of the brother of Gerry Hutch, a notorious Dublin gangster known as "The Monk".

In the week before the election, police closed streets and swept for bombs at the funerals of the two victims, 33-year-old David Byrne and 59-year-old Eddie Hutch, whose coffins were carried under the gaze of lines of police and a hovering helicopter.

In the wake of the shootings, a number of journalists had to move out of their homes after being threatened by crime gangs, in a disturbing echo of events in 1996 when reporter Veronica Guerin was assassinated by drug lords for her investigative work.

"It's 20 years now since Veronica was murdered by a criminal gang because she was writing about them and exposing the underworld," Veronica's brother Jimmy Guerin, who is running for a seat in parliament in a north Dublin constituency, told AFP.

"It's a particular sadness from my point of view that 20 years later things are indeed worse and much more dangerous."

Prime Minister Enda Kenny has been accused of hobbling the police by cutting staff and closing stations as part of the tough austerity measures imposed in the wake of an economic crisis and 2010 bailout.

At the hustings party leaders have jostled with pledges to beef up law and order.

Niall O'Connor, a former policeman, said spending cuts had had a huge impact on the surveillance of major criminals.

"This was an incredibly well-planned operation. They had a plan, they had getaway cars. They had AK-47s," O'Connor told AFP.

"So where were the intelligence sources? The question has to be asked: was it because they weren't willing to pay overtime?"

- Terrorism or organised crime? -

The attacks also came at an awkward time for the left-wing nationalist party Sinn Fein, clouding its attempt to distance itself from its past as the political voice of the IRA paramilitary group and reinvent itself as an anti-austerity champion.

A person claiming to represent the Continuity IRA splinter group claimed the group had responsibility for the hotel attack, though a contradictory statement was issued shortly afterwards.

The level of organisation and use of Kalashnikovs pointed to possible paramilitary involvement, but analysts said the lines between criminality and terrorism had been blurred since a landmark 1998 peace deal largely ended decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.

"Many former paramilitaries have failed to reintegrate into Irish society, post-peace process, immersing themselves instead in organised crime," security expert Tom Clonan wrote in an analysis.

"In Ireland it is impossible to make an absolute distinction between organised crime and terrorism."

Rival parties attacked Sinn Fein for a long-standing demand to scrap Ireland's juryless Special Criminal Court -- brought in to fight the IRA and extended to the fight against gang violence as a way to avoid juror intimidation.

Leader Gerry Adams has insisted the party opposes the court on civil rights grounds, but opponents accuse him of seeking to protect party cronies, pointing out that Sinn Fein members convicted by the court include lawmakers currently seeking re-election to parliament.

For Stephen Rae, editor-in-chief of Ireland's biggest news group Independent News and Media, tensions could even be worse now than they were two decades ago.

"Ireland has been through a recession, not that much money is being spent on policing and law and order, and the result of that now is that the gangs are starting to flex their muscles again," he said.

"I was a crime reporter myself in 1996, and I've never seen anything quite as serious as this."