Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing: homeFiction


Protected part 1

A short story in five parts

Public domain SVG by Karolus_BR

I’m the man who put Gregory Connell away for fourteen years. No, that won’t do. Let me see if I can’t be a bit more precise. The truth has become — belatedly, I’ll admit — of overriding importance to me. After decades of deceit and evasion, a time has come when I find I need to record the events in which I’ve taken part, and my unique perspective on them, with total accuracy. This account is going to contain nothing but the truth, otherwise there’d be no point in writing it. Anything less than absolute precision would be of no use to me or anyone else. “I’m the man who put Gregory Connell away” simply isn’t up to scratch. This is better:

I’m the man without whose evidence Greg Connell would probably never have been convicted. If not for me, he’d almost certainly still be in business, still extracting his substantial illegitimate tribute from the gross domestic product of our pleasant, put-upon little land. I played my part, and it was a necessary, if far from sufficient, condition.

There! Already, we’ve gone from “I put him away” to “I played my part”. That’s what accuracy and precision will do to you. So, this is going to be a duller read than the tale I’d have written twelve years ago. Of course, that tale would never have been written. As indeed it wasn’t.

The key to understanding Greg is to recognize that he was Al Capone in reverse. What every schoolchild knows about Capone is that the federal authorities of the United States could never get enough evidence to convict him of murder, so they were obliged to settle for tax evasion instead.

Greg, conversely, was a man whose raison d’être was the evasion of taxes, duties and imposts of every kind. His particular skill was in VAT carousel fraud, a crime which by its very nature has complexity built in. It involves a web of transactions between a large number of trading companies, ideally spread across several European countries. Greg, who has an IQ over 140, revelled in the complexity. He devised a structure even more labyrinthine than was strictly necessary and the full details of which were held in just one place — his head. Even a jury composed exclusively of accountants could never have been expected to follow it. Ultimately, the combined forces of the Criminal Assets Bureau, the Garda Fraud Office and the Director of Public Prosecutions had to content themselves with an indictment (and in due course a conviction) for conspiracy to murder. For that they needed me — their star witness.

When I gave evidence against Greg, I had already come to an agreement with the men who ran the Irish witness protection programme under which my old name would be discarded as I left the precincts of the court. This was not a fact which I or the witness protection people wanted to make public. The judge granted an application by prosecuting counsel for an order which forbade the mention of that old name in news reports. The papers and the tv news all used the same formula, without variation. Details, they said, were being withheld “to protect [my] identity”. I had plenty of time to scrutinize the shades of meaning of that peculiar phrase. What does it mean to have an identity, and what methods (legitimate or ill) can one use to protect it? I’ll try to answer the first question first.

I think we can agree that “identity” is a slippery, not to say downright ambiguous, concept. That’s the first obstacle in the path of my aspiration to total truth. The more I think about it, the more persuaded I am that it is simply the attempted fusion of two really quite incompatible concepts. On the one hand, our identity is what makes us distinct, unique. The sense in which there is only one of me and this is it, as in identity papers. A mélange of disparate human characteristics which go to make up a single individual who is entirely distinct from every other similar assemblage of characteristics in existence, or which has ever existed.

But on the other, it’s what I share with the collective I identify with: the nation, the racial group, speakers of a particular dialect, the oppressed or privileged minority. It is that wonderful self-contradiction: a shared distinctiveness. To put it another way, it couldn’t possibly be something real or solid. It’s an illusion, a seductive one.

I dare say it looks like I’m deliberately missing the point. Not a bit of it. Of course I know that the phrase “to protect his identity” is a piece of linguistic flim-flam, the elision of two ideas which the prosecuting authorities don’t want the public to think too carefully about. “To protect his identity” balances entirely on the precarious and unstable midpoint between two quite separate concepts. In reality, the thing that was being protected was my anonymity, and what was being done to my identity was its concealment. But it’s best for public confidence in the system of criminal justice that attention should be averted from the possibility that the witness giving sworn testimony might have something to conceal, not least the answer to the question “who is this person”?

I’ve no wish to be faux naïf: I know very well how the weaselly expression, “to protect his identity” came to be so useful to prosecutors and journalists. My point is merely that by adopting it so enthusiastically they may be revealing more than they mean to. The obfuscation hints at a deeper truth. And, of course, there’s one sense of “identity” in which the term is 100% accurate. The authorities doubtless hoped that by withholding my name they’d be able to keep me in one piece, at least as long as my evidence was useful. Staying in one piece was my priority too. Luckily for me, it was soon after the Irish state had set up its first witness protection programme that the Fraud Squad began to investigate Greg.

I’m not someone who particularly values loyalty, least of all in myself. My initial wariness when asked to inform on Greg had less to do with a distaste for betrayal — if the subject of the investigation had been any other of my criminal acquaintances I wouldn’t have hesitated — than with the personal affection and friendship I felt for him. That and a keen sense of self-preservation. At least the detectives had been able to offer something to assuage my second concern.

As is well known, the Irish witness protection programme was set up as a consequence of the murder of the journalist, Veronica Guerin. After a trial in 2001, the newspapers published some extraordinary pictures of one of the gang members changing his shirt outside the court. He had just given evidence against his former accomplices and was about to acquire a new identity. Some journalists began to ask exactly to whom the state was offering its protection. There was a minor public outcry, maybe a little less restrained than usual. The new scheme wasn’t wound up but the it faded from public view. That, I’d thought at the time, was as it should be. Witness protection is a difficult thing to achieve in the glare of publicity. When my own time came to avail of the programme, I was glad that its profile was so much lower than it had been.

Though we’d been nodding acquaintances before, I’d really got to know Greg in the mid-70s, when we’d both been students at Roscommon Regional Technical College. He was well on track to become an accountant, I was spending a couple of years doing a more general Certificate in Business Studies. I’d already decided before the end of the first year that Business Studies had been a mistake and that I was going to Galway to take a degree in English lit, but I ended up staying in the Regional for the second year and getting my Certificate. That was largely Greg’s doing. He was planning to get a few years’ experience in an accountancy department before setting up in business on his own. He’d be delighted to have me on the payroll but, by the time he’d be ready, I’d have been a few years out of UCG, years which I’d most likely spend teaching the poems of Yeats’s later period to secondary school students. Where was the rush? I should finish my Certificate, and only then go to Galway.

Greg had been 100% right. UCG, or more precisely English lit, had been a terrible disappointment. I’d done Heartbreak House for the Leaving and entertained the belief that I’d like to know more about the writings of George Bernard Shaw. Detailed study of any author’s work is tantamount to making the intimate acquaintance of your heroes. Notwithstanding his socialism, Shaw turns out to have been a certifiable fruitcake, with preposterously unscientific notions about evolution and a weakness for the “thought” of Henri Bergson. But he was only the greatest of several let-downs. Donne, the author of that rebarbative, ostensibly libertine, open-minded poetry, was either an inflexible Calvinist or an unprincipled careerist. (Like most people, I find careerism pardonable only in those few who succeed at it, and not even in all of those.) Spenser was the literary forebear of Frank Herbert (or, worse, L Ron Hubbard). George Eliot and Henry James compounded the sin of unreadability with length. Even Dickens was too prolific to be consistently good, and had in any case been all but ruined for me by atrocious television adaptations. English literature was revealed to be a vast, moth-eaten, unmusical fraud.

My disillusionment notwithstanding, I left Galway with a borderline first in my English degree. I believed, without much in the way of evidence, that the thing which pushed me onto the borderline from 2:1 territory was an extended essay in which I argued that Iago’s “motiveless malignity” was psychologically more credible than a consistent, “relatable” explanation of his conduct would have been. Not that “relatable” was the word I used — I’d never even heard it at the time — but I can’t remember my exact phrasing. With that degree, I could have gone on to do a Master’s; the obvious alternative being to get a HDipEd and become a teacher. Indeed, I started the HDip but more to fill in time than with any long term aim to make a career in the education system. I got in contact with Greg and reminded him of his offer of employment. At that point, he was a recently qualified accountant and his plan was to work for a couple of years in an established firm in one of the larger towns around Dublin, accumulating both experience and a certain amount of start-up capital. He urged me to be patient, so I pressed on with my teaching qualification and eventually got a job in a secondary school in north County Meath.

In my experience, no member of the profession is ever happy to admit to being a bad teacher. I’ve said that my story will be accurate and truthful, not that it will be exhaustive. I doubt my ability to be both comprehensive and honest about my time as a teacher, so I’m just going to pass over it in silence. Its only relevance to later events, in any case, is by way of explanation for my state of mind when at last Greg was able to make good on his offer. My English degree, impressive though it was (at least to me) didn’t particularly qualify me for any distinct role in Greg’s burgeoning electrical goods business (mainly wholesale but with a substantial retail outlet in the eastern part of a midlands county), so he took me on with the job title Marketing and Development Manager.

From childhood, Greg had shown an impressive talent for what, now that he was a businessman, it was appropriate to call “strategic thinking”. There was no doubt that he had the vision thing but he confided in me that he worried his training as an accountant might have channelled that vision too narrowly into a bean-counting mindset. His intention was that my supposedly liberal education would tend to counteract his more rigidly financial approach to the business.