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Drogheda feud: Gardaí bracing for 'violent escalation' in wake of Clogherhead killing

Gardaí believe a convicted criminal orchestrated Tuesday’s murder.

The scene of Tuesday's shooting.
The scene of Tuesday's shooting.
Image: Eamonn Farrell via RollingNews.ie

GARDAÍ ARE IN the process of readying themselves for an expected escalation in the gangland feud in Drogheda since the murder of Keith Branigan on Tuesday afternoon. 

Significant policing plans are now being drawn up and enforced and the investigation which was set up in the wake of the Clogherhead gun killing has yielded significant information, sources have said. 

Garda armed units and national organised crime units are now working on the theory that Branigan’s murder was the work of a notorious criminal who himself is linked to three other violent deaths.

In recent months, gardaí had feared that the escalating tensions would lead to a death in the Louth region and now, since their worst fears have been realised, senior management in the region are leading an offensive against both of the criminal gangs which will see significant numbers of officers working to quell any retaliatory violence.

On Tuesday, Branigan, a convicted criminal, had been working on decking at the site in Clogherhead when a gunman approached him and struck him with four shots. He had driven to the site, and later made his escape, in a red Lexus.

Branigan, a close associate of one of the main players in the feud, was dead. He became the first fatality of a gang feud which – until this week – had had every hallmark of a bloody gang war, but had yet to see a death. 

Since violence erupted in July 2018, gardaí had long been attempting to keep a lid of on the escalating tensions. Additional armed patrols, more feet on the street, more surveillance hours had been granted. Every step that could have been taken to prevent a murder was in place, security sources said.  

However, Branigan’s murder could not be stopped. 

Initial investigations into his daylight execution have indicated to officers that a serious criminal who has recently rejoined the ranks of one of the feuding gangs ordered and orchestrated this death. 

Before Branigan’s murder, there had been four shooting incidents in the space of 12 months. The majority happened during daylight hours.

Two of the shootings incidents injured two men from the same family. Owen Maguire was shot a number of times at a halting site in July 2018, an attack which effectively started the feud. He is now paralysed. His brother was shot and survived another attack earlier this year. There is no suggestion that this man has any involvement in criminality.

The other side’s usual response came in the form of waves of petrol bomb attacks and assaults. That was until Tuesday afternoon at 2.50pm. Their retaliation was fierce and clinical.

The murder changes things. Gardaí fear that the conflict could escalate into another bloody gangland war similar to Dublin’s Hutch/Kinahan feud.

Garda intelligence

At the start of the summer, gardaí had received intelligence that a notorious criminal had been making threats against the gang which had been carrying out the shootings.

This man had already been connected to a number of murders in Ireland, including that of criminal Benny Whitehouse in Balbriggan in 2014. He’s “top of the list” for garda investigators probing Tuesday’s killing.

Whitehouse was murdered just moments after he dropped his child to school. His partner was in the car beside him as he was killed. 

extra-pictures Garda forensics examine a car whose windows are believed to have been smashed by stray bullets, while people were still in the Post Office, near the Ashling Holiday Park in Clogherhead. Source: Eamonn Farrell via RollingNews.ie

Local garda detectives as well as national units are following a line of inquiry that the criminal who had recently rejoined the gang had planned and authorised the murder.

Gardaí also believe that one of the cars which was used in the murder, a a Toyota Avensis, will contribute useful DNA evidence as it had not been burned out.

Detectives based in the Louth district had long feared that the Drogheda feud had the potential for fatal attacks and had been successful in preventing gun murders and other serious incidents.  “The one thing the gardaí feared might happen has happened,” as one source put it.

The fact that the first murder of the feud was one of the gang’s first gun attacks is also worrying for officers. Despite both groups having the capability to use guns, the one gang’s refusal to attack using firearms was an indication to gardaí that at least one party to the feud did not want to escalate matters. 

With Branigan’s murder, it’s likely any hope of a ratcheting down of tensions is gone. 

Garda patrols and armed units continue to work the streets of Drogheda and its environs.

Gardaí in both Drogheda and nearby Balbriggan are sharing intelligence on the man and his gang. Officers received intelligence that he had been issuing threats to criminals in the north Dublin areas as well as Louth prior to his release from prison in May of this year. 

A number of inflammatory posts on social media between feuding gang members have also caught the attention of gardaí. Chief Superintendent for the region Christy Mangan has said these posts must be investigated. 

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, he said: “An area of particular concern is the use of social media to display criminal acts such as violent assaults or dangerous driving.

“We investigate all such instances with a view to prosecute. It is important people realise it is not acceptable to behave in such a fashion and there are consequences for your actions.”

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has also visited the murder scene in Clogherhead. TheJournal.ie understands that manpower and surveillance in the region will continue to be provided and armed patrols will be stepped up as a result of the shooting. 

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