The assistant garda commissioner has pleaded with youths not to get involved in the drugs trade at any level. We must provide initiatives to help, writes Cormac O’Keeffe.
Gary Lawlor and Karl Ducque spent six months “building trust” with a group of eight youths engaged in public drug dealing, drug use, and antisocial behaviour. Their initiative, Targeted Response to Youth (Try), is a pilot project running in St Teresa’s Gardens, a flat complex in Dublin’s south inner city.
Mr Lawlor said people in the complex, which is going through a long-promised and long-delayed process of regeneration, have suffered high levels of intimidation. Locals are literally “afraid to come out of their homes”, he said.
Try identified a gang of eight youths and worked their way from the fringes into the core members and got to know them. He said interventions that are desperately needed to target young men and gangland area are “not about slides” and brochures but about working with young people who see “drug-dealing as the only way”.
Mr Lawlor said that, after gaining the trust of the youths, they then began the long process of challenging their behaviour. He said a lot of their work with the young men is often “basic”, such as arranging appointments with doctors or the courts, with many of the youths having multiple bench warrants.
“They’re not used to people working with them and showing compassion,” he said.
Speaking at a recent conference, covered by the Irish Examiner, he said that, of the eight men, three to four of them are now in drug treatment, two are in counselling, one is in part-time work, and another is in full-time work.
Mr Lawlor said he loves his work and that these youths need intervention, which has to be backed by the State. He pointed out that their project, funded by Dublin City Council, is due to run out shortly.
His work ties in exactly with the plea made yesterday by Dublin’s top police officer, who was speaking to the media following the shooting dead of Sean Little and Jordan Davis, both aged 22, within less than 24 hours of each other in north Dublin. Davis was shot dead in front of his partner as they pushed their baby son in a buggy.
Both were involved in the drugs trade, but assistant garda commissioner Pat Leahy said there is nothing at the moment to suggest their murders were linked. Last January, another drug-dealing associate of theirs, Zach Parker, aged 23, was shot dead in Swords, north Dublin.
Mr Leahy said: “We are appealing to the young people out there at the moment, not only in Dublin but across the country, please do not get involved at any level with the drugs trade.
“We consistently hear comments — ‘he’s only doing a little bit of low-level dealing’; ‘he’s only taking a little bit of gear here and there’.
“Low-level dealing now is enough to have your life taken at a young age and we’ve seen it time and time again across the city over the last number of weeks and the last number of years.”
The conference that Mr Lawlor spoke at saw the launch of research carried out by Matt Bowden of Technological University Dublin.
That study on working with young people involved in the drugs trade found that drugs have become “normalised” in certain communities and that people’s involvement in the trade is often an alternative to the labour market.
Many regard it as a “job” — a way to afford prized consumer goods such as top-of-the-range runners and clothes such as Moncler and Canada Goose jackets.
“Drug selling and the associated activity of ‘muling’ and ‘holding stuff’ generates income to satisfy access to consumer goods desired by young people,” said Dr Bowden.
Initiation into selling or holding drugs can be also subtle and relationships are built over time and can be linked with a “cycle of debt” that a user might generate, according to Dr Bowden’s study.
What he found is that low-level street selling is often driven by “networks of friends selling to friends” — that credit sucks people in and then traps them.
A key effect of this credit/debts structure is the “violence it generates”— violence that permeates all aspects of the trade and is “indiscriminate and insatiable”, he said.
The study, commissioned by the Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign, said that intimidation by gangs means that people feel “helpless and abandoned” and entire local communities are kept “insecure, fearful, and subordinate”.
Examples of this have been seen most graphically in Drogheda, Co Louth, and Mulhuddart, west Dublin, where local feuding gangs are engaged in a spiral of reckless violence.
Another local project, targeting drug dealing and anti-social behaviour, was detailed at the conference. The Easy Street project operates in Ballymun, north Dublin, and has worked with 100 people aged 10-24 over the last 10 years.
Project manager Angela Birch said that key to their work is building up “meaningful relationships” with young people. She said they have used the interest of the young people in “health and fitness” and set up running clubs, taking part in ‘Hell and Back’ events and bike clubs.
She said the gain for the local community is that the young people are being worked with, through their outreach presence, and see benefits such as local clean-up operations and gardening projects.
Dr Bowden said 10 years of austerity in communities, which slashed local state and voluntary services, has “not been replenished”.
He called on the State to “fully resource” these services and come up and fund interventions to help those entangled in dealing and drug-related debt to exit that world.
Anna Quigley, co-ordinator of Citywide, said that people in positions of power live in a “different planet” and said that the fact the Try project is due to run out of funding in the coming months is “insanity” given the benefits it is having.
There has been other research documenting the insidious impact of the drugs trade on young people and local communities and the need for interventions. These include the Greentown Project, attached to University of Limerick, and numerous research by criminologist Johnny Connolly, including one on illicit drug markets.
On the policing side, there have been undoubted successes at the high end, by the likes of the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, the Criminal Assets Bureau, and detectives investigating Kinahan-Hutch feud murders.
Since 2019, the Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau alone has carried out 59 threat-to-life operations involving murder teams en route. High-visibility patrols and checkpoints, involving armed units, have been put in place, though overtime cutbacks have hit operations.
Mr Leahy cited the success of the bureau and local detectives in securing convictions of “serious criminals” for murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy to murder linked to the Kinahan-Hutch feud.
But in terms of preventing young men getting into the trade, what community groups and local politicians have been banging on about for years — as reported on consistently in the Irish Examiner — is greater policing presence locally.
Austerity not only slashed youth services and voluntary services but also drained communities of community policing and regular police patrols. Figures published last year showed community policing numbers were cut by almost 40% over a seven-year period across the country, with parts of Dublin, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick worst hit.
These numbers are only beginning to recover. Mr Leahy pointed to what he said is a very active community policing unit in Darndale.
Mr Leahy, who has 37 years of experience, drove a community policing model in the north inner city, which suffered the sharp edge of the Kinahan cartel murderous campaign in 2016. He said there is a renewed focus on community policing and that a new model, currently piloted in four areas, will be expanded by year’s end.
Since he was appointed last September, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has emphasised again and again the importance of community policing. It’s an area that the Future of Policing in Ireland Commission, published shortly after his appointment, puts at the heart of its policing blueprint. Another recent issue provides just an example of the reality on the ground in many areas.
Garda sources and local politicians have highlighted that in Ballyfermot, west Dublin, there are sometimes either no patrol cars available to respond to calls or there is only a shared one between Rathcoole and Clondalkin.
Commenting on a story published this week in the Irish Examiner, about large gangs of teenagers, armed with blades, hammers, bats, and even saws, going to arranged fights, Ballyfermot-Drimnagh Sinn Féin councillor Daithí Doolan said that “Garda morale, numbers, and resources are at a low”.
Even amid the problems, he said local community projects are trying to step into the breach, such as FamiliBase in Ballyfermot. He said they have gone out to a local park and set up a “pop-up” outreach service and engaged with up to 50 youths. The following week they brought them into the service and provided them with food and games to play, where they now go every Saturday night.
“The behaviour is the problem, not the kids themselves,” said Mr Doolan. “We need to build bridges with gardaí.”
It’s clear that the drugs trade and gangs are entrapping young people and silencing entire communities. There needs to be a massive State investment in, and focus on, building up and empowering local communities and resourcing local youth, social and policing services.
As Mr Lawlor said: “I wish people sitting in powerful offices could come out to communities and resource them and give people living in these communities a chance.”