Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing: homeFiction

Protected part 3

A short story in five parts

I happened to be present when one of these groups confronted Greg. It was a stormy winter’s night and the range in Greg’s kitchen was stoked up but his four visitors declined to remove their dark overcoats (or even to turn down their collars) and showed no sign of finding the heat oppressive. One, the leader, sat at the kitchen table and motioned to the man to his left to join him. The other two remained standing, in the background. The men weren’t obviously armed, though a great deal could have been hidden under those large coats. Although they kept their collars up they seemed to take no great care to avoid being identified. There were no balaclavas. Only the leader gave a name — Pádraig Mac Thomáis — which was surely an alias.

Greg took the initiative. “I hope you don’t mind if we skip the preliminaries. I know what you want. You’re here to look for a share in my business. I don’t need to know how large a share. Perhaps the lion’s share. That’s immaterial, because I’m here to tell you that you can’t have it.”

“Is that a fact?”, Mac Thomáis intoned with slow menace. “Because I’m here to tell you some things you might not be aware of.”

“I can’t be intimidated. My business can’t be run without the knowledge that I have up here. Company names, trading relationships, the ownership at any given moment of a particular consignment of goods. Prices, VAT reclaim amounts. None of that is written down. Without what I’ve got in my head, there is no business.”

“Some of it would have to be written down.”

“The individual companies keep the records they’re required to by law. Those records are complete and accurate and all above board, up to the moment when it’s time for one company to cease trading, leaving a substantial amount of VAT unpaid. But good luck piecing all those details, even if you could assemble the right ones, into an overall scheme. The tax authorities of six or seven countries, working together, can’t do it and they have at least one advantage over you.”

“What’s that?”

“They want to shut the fucking thing down. It’s of no use to you unless you can keep it in operation. Without my willing cooperation, you haven’t a hope in hell of doing that. And my willing cooperation is something you won’t be getting. Just so we’re clear.”

Greg paused, giving the other man a chance to assess his seriousness. Then he went on: “And don’t even think about threatening me or mine. Do you suppose I haven’t anticipated this approach, haven’t prepared for it? I’m ready to abandon all of this in an instant. We’ll be gone and I promise you you’ll never find us.”

Greg had remained standing during this exchange. He’d been leaning forward, with his two palms resting on the edge of the table, opposite Mac Thomáis. Now, he stood upright and went to open one of the fitted cupboards along the back wall of the kitchen. The two standing paramilitaries tensed, expecting action, but Mac Thomáis motioned them to relax. Greg reached inside the cupboard and brought out a bottle of Jameson.

“And now that we’ve got the fundamentals out of the way,” he resumed, “what was it you lads wanted to talk about? I’m all ears. Colm,” he nodded to me, “Six glasses, there, if you wouldn’t mind.”

The paramilitaries stayed for a couple of drinks but didn’t linger over them. The conversation was inconsequential. Neither Greg nor Mac Thomáis had a penchant for small talk but Greg, having put his point across, was happy to make the effort. After the visitors had left, Greg poured each of us a third drink and put the bottle back in the cupboard, though what was left in it at that stage would barely fill a thimble.

“That was impressive”, I said. “I’d never have thought they’d take ‘No’ for an answer so easily.”

“I don’t think for a moment that they will.”

“Then what …?”

“That was just the opening gambit. I was making sure they know I won’t be a pushover. But they’ll be back all right.”

“And then?”

“Then I’ll play it by ear, like I did tonight.”

Greg could presumably have concluded a deal with either the paramilitaries or a gang under which he’d pay for “protection” from, in effect, the attentions of the other group. Instead, he played them off against the other, telling each that he was paying the bulk of his contributions to the other but that he would also make a smaller payment to them as a form of additional insurance. He boasted to me that by splitting the payment he saved more than a third on what it would otherwise cost him. I thought that this was an irresponsibly risky strategy and that he’d be much better off dealing exclusively with the disciplined and predictable paramilitaries and cutting out the volatile, atavistic rabble. But it was important to Greg to make it clear that he no more supported the violent methods of the paramilitaries than he did the socially corrosive activities of the criminals. It was a point of pride with him to keep his contribution to both sets of coffers as low as he possibly could. I suspected that it wasn’t just the methods of the paramilitaries that he hated but equally their aims. I tried to draw him out on the subject.

“It’s a false distinction,” was the most I could get from him. “The aims and the methods are two sides of the same coin. I don’t even believe ‘aim’ is the right word. Can you call something an ‘aim’ if it can’t be achieved? And it’s from the impossibility of achievement that the violence arises — an expression of frustration in the face of intractable reality.”

He wasn’t prepared to say any more than that. It was, of course, Greg’s dealings with militant republicans on the one hand and and vicious gangsters on the other which made it possible for me to persuade the authorities that my life would be at risk unless I went into witness protection. The small matter of the conspiracy to murder Bernard Sheehy apart, Greg had never been known to use violence. On the contrary, he always made clear his distaste for it.

After Greg’s conviction, I first went to live in Peterborough. I hadn’t before then spent any extended period in England — or, indeed outside Ireland. I’d been on holidays in Spain and Scotland and spent a few weekends in London and one in Rome and that had been the extent of my foreign travel. Peterborough was more of a surprise than I was expecting but I was younger then and more resilient and I’m not going to claim that I found the experience exactly a shock. Let’s say a mild jolt. I thought I knew English life quite well from television — from “The Sweeney” and “George & Mildred”, as I put it to one English acquaintance, half joking. If I’d wanted to be less facetious, I’d have said “Last of the Summer Wine”. England was familiar but foreign at the same time, and my sense of not-quiteness was reinforced by the near-absence of a language barrier.

Though it was only twelve years ago, it’s hard for me to think myself back into my state of mind at the time. During my years as a business student, I’d developed an interest in the Irish legal system, which was one of the subjects on the course. When I arrived in England, I was worried about moving from a republic with a written constitution, a more sophisticated and democratic electoral system than first-past-the-post, and higher courts willing to protect individual rights and check abuses of institutional power, to a monarchy governed by vague constitutional conventions and the remnants of the royal prerogative, with courts whose power was limited by the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. Ludicrous as it might seem in retrospect, I worried that I was migrating from a society which was free if manifestly imperfect to one where the people were subjects rather than citizens and I would not even be the former. As I said, it’s hard to put myself back in that frame of mind.

If I learned a lesson from my experience, it must be that constitutional forms are poor indicators of the degree of openness and freedom of a society. Freedom and openness are properties, not of governmental structures, but of something as nebulous as “culture”. The United Kingdom’s trappings of monarchical and aristocratic rule were at odds with its vibrant culture, whereas Ireland’s constitutional arrangements — admirable though they seemed to me at the time — made little impact on its cautious, wary and suspicious mindset. It wasn’t till my recent return that I was finally forced to accept the second half of of that juxtaposition. Stated as baldly as I’ve put it here, it seems obvious, undeniable and by no means a surprise. Clearly, I had more invested than I realized in not believing it, because being forced to recognize the truth hit me with the force of a physical shockwave. It is deeply unsettling to find that you have no choice but to accept that you’ve been deceiving yourself for most of your adult life. After a few weeks back in the country, I still haven’t accepted that the Ireland I’ve come back to is a real place and that I am really in it. I’ve repeatedly had to dismiss the notion that it’s a distorted simulacrum from which I’m separated by a transparent dome on which I slide around, fruitlessly and out of control.

It’s from this experience that my determination arises to tell the complete and absolute truth about Greg’s trial and conviction, and my role in both. I’ve had enough self-deception to last me the rest of my life. And then some. So where was I? Greg’s known opposition to violence, in all its forms, wasn’t it? Strange that he, of all people, should be guilty of conspiracy to murder. Again, as with the original move into VAT fraud, I have to take the credit for nudging him in a direction he wouldn’t have followed of his own accord.

As I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t present for Greg’s first encounter with the criminal gang. He didn’t tell me what had gone on, but I imagined that it wasn’t a lot different from his confrontation with the paramilitaries. If there were subsequent meetings, they also occurred without my participation. It would be several months before Greg confided in me that he was a lot less comfortable about his dealings with the gangsters than he was about the republicans. I’d been right, he conceded, the latter were predictable and seemed to make a point of ensuring that the relationship went smoothly with minimal opportunity for disruption. The criminals, on the other hand, made him uneasy.

From what I could gather, the position of the guy in charge was not all that secure. He had staved off a challenge but only by agreeing that they’d have to bring in more money. Unfortunately for the boss, this coincided with a period of increased police surveillance, so the demand couldn’t be satisfied by importing and selling more drugs or any other kind of high profile criminal operation. One possibility that remained open was to extract more money from the businesses who relied on their protection. Greg had been a reluctant payer in the first place. An unexpected increase in the tariff, with no guarantee that that would be the end of it, prompted him to reevaluate the deal.

“I’m not in business for their benefit,” he told me. “If they make it so it’s not worth my while to go on, then I won’t. I could be living the good life in Spain, or Florida or Australia. I don’t need their fucking ‘protection’. I don’t have to sit here and take this.”

“What would you do with the business?” I wanted to know. “Sell it?”

Greg had been thinking about that and had an answer ready. “I could sell the legit side. It’s profitable but nothing out of the ordinary. There wouldn’t be a lot of fat for the boyos to take their cut.”

“And the other side?”

“Nothing to sell. No books, no transferrable knowhow. Nothing you could put into a contract for sale. I’d just quit while I’m ahead.”

“You’d be happy to do that?”

“You know me, I get bored. I’ve made some money, enough to be going on with. Time for a change, maybe.”


“It seems the sensible move.”

“But you’d be willing to consider alternatives?”

From anyone other than me he mightn’t have been. I didn’t have a plan to offer him off the cuff, just the glimmering of an idea. I asked him to let me think about it.