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Nicola Tallant: ‘How I signed up with Sunday World to take down Ireland’s biggest criminals’

Our fearless crime editor Nicola Tallant on digging into Ireland’s murky underworld for 15 years

Nicola approaches Daniel Kinahan outside court in Estepona, Spain in 2010

Nicola Tallant

Nicola Tallant challenges John Gilligan

Nicola with her Crime Journalist Of The Year award in 2019

Nicola Tallant with Paul Ward© Caroline Quinn

Nicola Tallant tracking down George ‘The Penguin’ Mitchell in Traben-Trarbach, Germany in 2015.© Kevin Mc Nulty

Nicola Tallant

“It really just means eight or 10 splashes a year from you,” said the Sunday World’s Deputy Editor Neil Leslie. “Be no bother to you.”

We’d just had lunch and a bottle of wine, without which, I wouldn’t have been able to hide my terror. ‘Splashes’, by the way, are front page exclusive stories, which screamed from the news stands in big banner headlines and with undercover photography to boot.

It was 2008 and I was coming in from the cold – I’d spent 10 years running a successful news agency which covered everything from politics to showbiz and was far more about making lots of money than journalism.

Nicola Tallant

Crime was my natural beat, but how I was going to produce the kind of content which was theSunday World ‘bread and butter’ was beyond me. I swallowed hard, raised my glass and clinched the deal to return full time to hard-hitting crime reporting.

I’d watched in awe for years as investigative journalists on both sides of the border had blazed a trail with their crime reporting for the Sunday World, getting up close and personal to some of the biggest names in Ireland’s underworld and digging deep into their operations.

I had some good contacts and no shortage of enthusiasm, but I struggled to see how I was going to crack the style of ‘gritty’ reporting that was required to hit page one.

And so I closed my eyes and dived in and discovered a sort of journalistic nirvana where every day was an adventure and where literally anything could happen.

Nicola Tallant challenges John Gilligan

Despite my own lack of confidence, I soon found myself creating those front pages with stories about the cult of Tony Quinn’s Educo, where millions of euro was washing in to his promises of financial freedom, weight loss and spiritual awakening; the foreign begging rackets on Irish streets which were funding millionaire crime bosses in Romania, and the seedy sex-for-sale industry and its violent bosses.

I found myself picking through abandoned houses where trafficked people were accommodated by greedy crime lords, watching street dealers ply their wares in scenes straight from ‘The Wire’ from the back of surveillance vehicles, and interviewing Justice Ministers, police chiefs and community workers on the front lines in the fight against drugs.

I travelled to Serbia, Romania, Spain, Belgium, Mallorca, Mauritius, Hong Kong, The Philippines, Indonesia, the US and the UK, chasing criminals, investigating murder cases, setting up stings and seeking out the wealth of those who made their money from crime.

There were plenty of hairy moments, like the time myself and Mick McCaffrey were recognised in Puerto Banus by some Kinahan footsoldiers who called for reinforcements to teach a lesson to the ‘Sunday World scum’, there were a few dodgy encounters along the border which served as a baptism of fire in tactical driving and the occasions I stupidly found myself going into buildings without a plan to get out.

Nicola with her Crime Journalist Of The Year award in 2019

Ironically, it was the Sunday World, with its reputation for zero tolerance to crime, where I learned that it’s not all so black and white and where I have had the opportunity to see the bigger picture of why young men get lured into gangs and are tempted by a ‘lifestyle’ of fast cars, women and wealth.

And it’s not because theSunday Worldglamorises it, it’s a far more complex problem than that. It’s actually all about the fabric of society and community and the inequalities that exist for many who are marginalised and who are poor. We are actually all to blame.

There have been the encounters with the crime lords, the A-listers, who are both fascinating and frightening all at the same time. To rise to the top in a world of violence and power, you cannot show weakness or have the same moral code as ourselves.

People like Daniel Kinahan, Liam Byrne, Thomas ‘Bomber’ Kavanagh and Derek ‘Bottler’ Devoy have an unmistakable aura around them, a darkness that you can feel from their eyes.

Others, like George ‘The Penguin’ Mitchell, the late Noel ‘Kingsize’ Duggan and Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch are a different breed – old school Dubliners who came up the hard way but who know how to hide and control their menace.

Nicola Tallant with Paul Ward© Caroline Quinn

A younger breed of cocaine fuelled and ruthless criminals like Paul Crosby and Trevor Byrne emanate a complete disorder and unpredictability, while the smugness of criminals like John Gilligan and Martin ‘The Beast’ Morgan suggest they feel totally untouchable.

It would be hard to imagine any other job where meeting such characters, and often standing to talk with them, would be OK with the boss.

Or where a trip into the dark heart of an international drug cartel would be just another day’s work.

I’m not sure many workplaces see deliveries of sodden boxes of bullets, are the scenes of confessions to murder or where the secrets of the Irish underworld are so freely discussed.

There were plenty more lunches over the years and a good few bottles of wine.

There has been fun and laughter, grief and sadness, and there has been many a day when it seems that truth is far stranger than fiction.

Nicola Tallant tracking down George ‘The Penguin’ Mitchell in Traben-Trarbach, Germany in 2015.© Kevin Mc Nulty

Along the way the pen and notebook has been replaced by cameras and microphones and the newspaper has been complemented with a website and podcasts and videos as we look forward to a digital future for the extraordinary, brash and noisy being that is the Sunday World.

It seems like a long time ago that my lifelong friend Neil Leslie suggested that it would be ‘no bother to me’ to become part of the good ship Sunday World.

In the 15 years that have followed I’ve had an education that I could never have got in any university.

And as many of us ‘Sunday Worlders’ will tell you, it’s the stories we can’t tell that are the truly entertaining.

So, still standing, I raise a glass to 50 years and wish the best little newspaper a Happy Birthday and many more years to come.

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