Hostile takeovers: Dealers sell from the homes of vulnerable addicts

Drug dealers in Ballymun and other disadvantaged areas are targeting vulnerable people and taking over properties to use as a base for their illicit trade. Cormac O’Keeffe examines how criminals are keeping communities ‘insecure, fearful, and subordinate’
Hostile takeovers: Dealers sell from the homes of vulnerable addicts

Eddie D'Arcy, recently retired community youth worker with 40 years experience and part-time lecturer in DKIT. Picture: Moya Nolan

When a garda was shot during a forced entry of a house in Ballymun in December 2017, officials in Dublin City Council became aware of their first case of home “takeovers”.

Also known as “hostile takeovers” or, abroad, as “cuckooing”, it is where drug gangs move in on the home of a vulnerable person – often because of addiction – and basically set up shop.

In the Ballymun raid, a member of the Emergency Response Unit was attempting to get past a reinforced metal door, reportedly using an angle-grinder, when a shot was discharged from inside the property, hitting him in the arm.

Garda sources said at the time it was “pure luck” he wasn’t killed or seriously injured.

The revelation that this incident was DCC’s first “takeover” was contained in the recent report on the drug trade in Ballymun, north Dublin.

Home takeovers

Report author Andrew Montague, chair of the local drug task force and former mayor painted a grim picture of open drug dealing, reduced policing resources and a community cowed by fear and intimidation.

His report, commissioned by DCC, raised the takeover issue in the context of a worsening problem with crack cocaine in the area, and the impact on users and their families and the wider community.

“As crack cocaine use surged in Ballymun, there was also a spate of house takeovers in the community,” he said.

“Criminal networks are taking control over the homes of vulnerable people and using these homes for the sale and consumption of drugs and other illegal activities.” 

He said the activity in the properties can be “highly disruptive” to the neighbourhood.

“The first house takeover came to the attention of the City Council in 2017, when a Garda was shot and injured from one of these houses.” 

Citing an interview with a DCC official, he said: “Since that time there have been at least 15-20 more take-overs in Ballymun.” 

The report, Ballymun – 'A Brighter Future', said this type of house takeover was not unique to Ballymun.

“It has been described in the UK and in Canada as “Cuckooing”, after the cuckoo bird that takes over another bird’s nest,” the report said.

The vulnerable tenants who are frequently targeted include people with crack cocaine addictions, tenants with mental health or physical disability problems, elderly people or young people.

“The city council works closely with the Gardaí, the HSE and other community groups to support the vulnerable tenants and to close up these houses. While house take-overs are still happening, the number of take-overs in Ballymun is reducing.” 

In a statement to the Irish Examiner, An Garda Síochána said: “In response to your earlier query on the practice referred to as ‘cuckooing’ or the hostile takeover of homes of vulnerable tenants by criminal gangs, as referenced in the recently published report Ballymun – A Brighter Future, please note that as part of an inter-agency response to drug dealing and anti-social behaviour in Ballymun, An Garda Síochána, Dublin City Council and the HSE work collaboratively to address this issue on an ongoing basis.” 

It also included a statement from DCC, which said: “Over the last four years (2016-2020) Dublin City Council secured 19 properties as result of ‘hostile takeovers’.” 

It confirmed that all 19 units were specifically in the Ballymun area.

“The profiles of these tenants were all very similar: single people with addiction issues,” the council said.

“Local criminals would identify these vulnerable individuals and essentially take over their property for the purpose of illegal activities.” It said the council investigated the reports of anti-social behaviour and assessed that “in most of these cases the tenant was in fact the victim”.

It said the council adopted an interagency approach establishing an action plan to deal with the anti-social behaviour and at the same time support the tenant.

“This involved liaising with the An Garda Síochána, as we do intensively on an ongoing basis, and linking in the HSE and Outreach drug addiction services,” the statement said.

“In some cases, provision was made to move the tenant on estate management grounds to a new tenancy and treatment services engaged to support the tenant where appropriate.” 

While the problem is on a scale that appears to be very high, some sources have said that this practice has been a feature of the drug trade for a long time, particularly in Dublin and Limerick.

“It’s called cuckooing,” said one drug worker in Dublin city centre. “It’s not new. They find a vulnerable person, with their own gaff, befriend them, deal them drugs, intimidate them – say through drug related debt – and take over the house/apartment to deal drugs from. They do that for as long as possible and when it’s raided, they move on to the next place they’ve lined up.” 

Daithí Doolan, Sinn Féin councillor for Ballyfermot and Drimnagh, in south west Dublin, said: “Criminal gangs taking over people’s homes to sell drugs is a serious problem in Dublin. It clearly shows just how powerful these cartels have become. They feel untouchable. But I can assure you it would not be tolerated in Foxrock, Blackrock or Dalkey.” 

The chair of Dublin’s Joint Policing Committee said: “The gangs prey on vulnerable people, often intimidating the family or promising to pay the rent or food bills. Meanwhile neighbours feel totally disempowered to do anything - too scared to call the Gardaí or City Council.” 

 He said: “There appears to be an acceptable level of anarchy in some working-class communities. This situation is not acceptable. We cannot allow drug gangs to hold whole communities to ransom like this. The Gardaí and Dublin City Council need to step up to the challenge. They owe it to the public and to the families being exploited.” 

The councillor called on the Minister with responsibility for the National Drug Strategy, Frank Feighan, to organise an urgent meeting with the Garda Commissioner and Dublin City Council to agree on a course of action.

“Every action will be taken to get the gangs out of these properties and get the families the support they need,” he said.

Johnny Connolly, a criminologist attached to School of Law at University of Limerick, has been researching drug markets and communities for decades.

The finding in the Ballymun report reminds him of a study he did in the north inner city in 2006 on the emergence of crack cocaine.

“One of the things that emerged from that was same thing, crack houses, and people who were vulnerable, somehow exposed, often partners of people addicted who had houses, and they were used by people to use crack, which is a time-consuming process to prepare and not as easy to do as on the street.” 

The phenomenon of ‘hostile takeovers’ is considered separate to the endless cases, as evidenced in court reports, of people, often the parents of children with drug debts or juveniles themselves, storing drugs, or weapons or cash, in their homes for gangs in a bid to pay off the debts.

It is all part of the fabric of the drug markets where gangs need properties to store drugs, as well as weapons and cash, and to mix and distribute drugs from.

With both domestic and international reports indicating a growing number of groups or gangs involved in the drugs trade – particularly attracted by the money to be made for street dealing of cocaine – there is a growing demand for places to keep drugs.

Ballymun Road. Community worker Eddie D’Arcy wonders if the war on drugs needs ‘a complete rethink. Picture: Moya Nolan
Ballymun Road. Community worker Eddie D’Arcy wonders if the war on drugs needs ‘a complete rethink. Picture: Moya Nolan

Dr Connolly said the Ballymun report cited home takeovers in the context of the crack market.

“Yes, it is a natural part of the trade, in terms of storing and holding, but with crack there’s an extra dimension and using crack in these properties, it’s a more chaotic dimension,” Dr Connolly said. 

“It’s hard to know if Ballymun is exceptional, it’s certainly very serious.”

Eddie D’Arcy has been a youth and community worker for 40 years, most of it in the Clondalkin and Ballyfermot areas of west Dublin.

He said, in his experience, gangs look to find someone leading a normal life to use, rather than bring attention to the property.

They would tend to find a quiet person, who isn’t criminally involved, to hold bags of something. They don’t want to be bringing attention to any houses used to store stuff or money.

“I’m not sure if these ‘home takeovers’ are planned or strategic, or people just go into smoke crack and there’s no control in the home.

"Are they planned by gangs as safe houses? Probably not – those houses come to the attention of guards fairly quickly. The gangs know they will be raided.” 

The Ballymun report highlighted linked issues – open drug dealing, the grooming of vulnerable juveniles into criminal networks, increasing violence, often associated with growing competition between groupings, reduced policing resources, limited access to youth, family and mental health services and lack of opportunities and economic deprivation.

Very similar terrain was covered days later in the scoping review of Drogheda carried out by former Probation Service boss Vivian Geiran.

New low

This report, Drogheda – Creating a Bridge to a Better Future, was ordered by the Department of Justice after gangland in the town descended to unspeakable depravity with the murder and dismemberment of a teenager in January 2020.

Mr Geiran said the “abduction, brutal torture and killing” of the teen had traumatised the town and its people, particularly its young people and children.

In relation to drug gangs' corrosive impact on vulnerable young people and local communities, the report made a number of comments.

Talking about young people involved in the town’s two Garda Youth Diversion Programmes, Mr Geiran said: “Those working in both projects report increased challenges, in many respects, over the past few years, with the general deterioration in criminality and its seriousness.

“GYDP staff also report lack of adequate access to specialist services such as HSE Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) and Jigsaw mental health programmes.” 

The report, again, spelled out the devastating impact of drug-related intimidation (DRI).

“This intimidation can be targeted at young and old alike,” said Mr Geiran. 

“Indeed, the researcher heard numerous anecdotes of young people who got involved – ‘willingly’ or unwittingly, through pressure, ‘grooming’ by established offenders, or otherwise – in assisting drug dealers and who subsequently ended up on the wrong side of the dealer. This can be for real or perceived drug ‘debts’ as well as for other reasons.

“Typically, it results in retaliatory action being taken against the young person and their family. One of the features of this DRI activity in Drogheda is the common use of arson and bombing property as the violence of choice in such incidences. 

"Other forms of violence, damage to property (e.g., breaking house windows), or threats, are also used, often with horrible consequences.” 

Mr Geiran went on: “Some parents of at-risk children have resorted to sending their children to live with relatives in other parts of the country, or even outside the jurisdiction, for periods of time, to avoid their exposure to such intimidation and violence. 

In other cases, families have uprooted and left their homes. There are many recorded incidents of actual or attempted use of improvised explosive devices (IED) such as petrol bombs or pipe bombs being used, particularly in certain housing estates, as part of the so-called feuding. 

In some instances, houses have been burned out or severely damaged, as well as victims being injured, in such attacks. Because they generally take place in relatively built-up areas, neighbours of the intended target/s can be and often are directly affected by such attacks.

“In other incidents of DRI, physical violence, including what might only be described as physical torture, as well as threats, are used.

People are afraid to look out their windows. People are afraid to be seen talking.

In effect, what certain areas are experiencing, and, in some cases, have been experiencing for decades, is not hostile takeovers of homes – but hostile takeovers of communities.

Community takeovers

This manifests at various levels, as the Geiran report and others have portrayed – not just in the power of gangs and the fear they inflict, but in low-level, everyday anti-social behaviour.

“There was a perception among some respondents that in some housing estates in Drogheda, there has been a certain tolerance by officialdom of an often-escalating level of anti-social activity or ‘unruly behaviour’ resulting in a ‘breakdown’ of societal norms and an increase in unacceptable behaviours,” Mr Geiran said. 

“This, in turn, can lead to a significant deterioration of quality of life for the wider community.” 

He said in the absence of positive opportunities, some young people can be attracted to the material lifestyle opportunities offered by drugs and crime.

“The children and young people of Drogheda and surrounding areas have collectively been traumatised to a greater or lesser extent by the crime and drug-related activities of a minority. 

“The nature of some of the criminality, and drug-related intimidation in particular, has been insidious and has frequently had the shocking feature of the involvement of children, some of a very young age.”

His points, though persuasive, have been made time and time again.

In addition to the Ballymun report, there was the ‘Debts, Threats, Distress and Hope’ report on drug-related intimidation in Dublin’s north inner city last January and in the same month the latest reports (Bluetown and Redtown) on criminal networks conducted by the Greentown team in University of Limerick.

Before that, in December 2019, there was the 'Building Community Resilience' report by Johnny Connolly and, the previous April, a report commissioned by the Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign and written by academic Matt Bowden.

And before them was the 'Mulvey Report on the North East Inner City', published in February 2017, set up on the back of the Kinahan cartel murder campaign in the area.

In 2016, Citywide published its 'Demanding Money with Menace' report on drug intimidation.

Two years previously, Dr Connolly published a massive three-year research project, the first in the country, on drug markets in Ireland.

In 2013, the National Family Support Network published its 'Responding to Intimidation' report.

This subject is not new - it’s just not enough has been done about it.

In his report, Dr Bowden said intimidation and violence drives local drug markets and enables drug bosses to keep communities “insecure, fearful, and subordinate”.

He chronicled a “sense of abandon” in working-class communities and suggested that drug dealing was seen as a type of “work” among young people sucked into the trade, who saw it as a way to buy consumer goods, like the best of clothes.

Human Rights for Communities

All the various reports directly or indirectly point to the need to give communities both a voice and power.

This issue was developed most in the 'Building Resilient Communities' report, which found that children as young as ten were being groomed into criminal networks and young teenagers were aspiring to the lifestyle and status of local drug lieutenants.

That report said that communities have “a right to be safe” and that parents in those areas have a “right to raise their kids in safety”.

The report urged the development of Community Impact Statements, interest in which is spreading across communities.

Talking to the Irish Examiner, Dr Connolly said these communities should adopt the language of human rights.

“These are the rights of children to be protected and the same rights that communities that don’t suffer the same way take for granted…the right to live without harm.” 

He said if communities adopt this approach it “changes the nature of the debate”.

He said: “The [Ballymun] report talks about losing police numbers and resources – but if you use human rights language you talk about people have the right to be protected by the state, there’s an obligation to protect them, so that should change the urgency of the debate when talking about resources, whether policing or otherwise.” And the non-policing resources have been covered in the various reports.

In the Drogheda study, Mr Geiran highlighted a perceived shortage of services for young people in need of acute and other mental health services because of depression, anxiety or other disorders, with difficulties in accessing HSE child and adolescent mental health services.

It said Tusla had two child protection teams in Drogheda, which presented as being under “continuing pressure over extended periods” due to various factors, including vacancies and challenges getting social workers to work there.

The same report also highlighted an “overall level of dissatisfaction” among people with the level and accessibility of drug treatment services and the lack of HSE outreach and community-based addiction services.

The report also flagged the long-standing issue of a lack of round-the-clock multi-disciplinary services.

“As a result, An Garda Síochána members are frequently called upon to deal with individuals (adults and children) who may be experiencing psychological or socially related episodes or traumas, or who may be suicidal for example. Especially where such incidents or episodes take place outside ‘business hours,’ including at weekends.” 

This whole issue was examined by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, which reported in September 2018. It called for a shift in how policing is viewed to include a wider ‘community safety’ obligation on the State.

As part of this, it called for the other key State services – mental health, social services, family, youth and drug services – to share in the responsibility.

It recommended the establishment of 24/7 Community Intervention Teams, first recommended in 2009, to respond to critical local incidents.

Cause for hope 

Dr Connolly has some hope for the future: “With these reports, and our one, the Greentown one, I think we have a very good sense of what needs to be done and how it needs to be done.” 

He said: “From what I see from the commission report I do think it’s been taken seriously at a political level. People are seeing we’ve been at this for 30 years and see what’s happening in communities, so something different has to happen.”

He pointed to the rollout of the new Garda operating model and the new community safety pilots in Dublin's north inner city, Waterford and Longford.

All the various reports urge specific programmes for young people at risk of being groomed into criminal networks and those already involved.

Eddie D’Arcy said the stream of young people sucked into these networks was constant.

“These young lads drawn in are expendable – the attitude is if they are caught and get a three-to-four year sentence then we need someone else to fill their space. The problem is increasing from the point of view that there are more people selling right across the country."

He said it always struck him as odd that the juvenile diversion system excluded those who were not reducing their offending.

“For me, it was strange that the kids most at risk of offending at the highest level are the ones excluded,” he said, “that’s why we put forward the proposal for the Rua project.” 

This programme, part of the Solas Project in Dublin’s south inner city has been praised by evaluations.

He thinks the department has a better understanding of the problem now and expects a more “welfare approach”, including in the Youth Justice Strategy 2021-2027, published on Thursday.

The strategy sets out actions targeting the estimated 1,000 children at risk of becoming serious offenders, including specialised projects for “hard to reach” cases and implementation of the Greentown pilot programme to support children under coercive control of criminal gangs.

“The difficulty is [these youngsters] are a difficult bunch of youngsters to engage with,” Mr D’Arcy said. 

“We agreed only to engage with those after they were excluded and had reached a high level of offending…but it is possible to identify some of those youngsters at a much earlier age, and exclusion from school would be a key factor.” 

He said statistics published by Oberstown Children Detention Centre show that the numbers of kids out of education was very high.

“It is possible to engage with them, it is possible to build up relationships with them,” he said. 

No one wants to spend life in and out of prison. Many of these do not see any choices and don’t really look that far ahead, a lot of them are impulsive. 

All of the reports say locals want more policing, not less, but, equally, they want local police to build up relationships with young people and communities.

Future of policing

“If you look at Ballymun, you’ve got open drug dealing, a serious problem that would not be tolerated in Clontarf,” said Dr Connolly. 

“If you are really serious about community policing, there has to be really strong engagement at a community level with guards that are visible, and develop relationships, not just drive by in cars – they are visible in terms of developing relationships with local people who know these guards are going to be there for the long term, to help them with the problems they face, along with other agencies. 

“Communities keep saying ‘we need more community guards’ – but you need a structural change in the organisation so that community services is the primary service all police are focused on.” 

Talking to the Irish Examiner at the launch of the Community Resilience report in December 2019, now retired assistant commissioner for Dublin, Pat Leahy, warned that the change recommended by the commission had to be taken on by Garda top managers.

He said: “If senior management do not have a change of mindset and are not totally committed to it, it is not going to happen – it’s as simple as that.”

He said the focus on recent years had been on the gangland violence and the Kinahan-Hutch feud, which, in particular, had devastated the northeast inner city.

He said the previous years were “probably the best three years tackling that level of gangland-orientated crime”.

This included wholesale prosecutions and convictions, including by the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, of Kinahan figures, some of them very senior in the network.

The DOCB has also continued to conduct operations to thwart planned or attempted assassinations, and has clocked up massive seizures of drugs and cash, while the Criminal Assets Bureau continues to carry out its work.

Mr Leahy said that, like almost all police forces, the Gardaí adopted a “traditional approach” to policing and that its priorities around crimes, crime trends, criminals and arrests – which were monitored by oversight and regulatory bodies - were not the same priorities of communities.

The Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun which is housed in the former powerstation with it's landmark red and white tower in the centre of the suburb. Picture: Moya Nolan
The Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun which is housed in the former powerstation with it's landmark red and white tower in the centre of the suburb. Picture: Moya Nolan

“Communities don’t look at it like that, they look at quality of life,” he said. “The target of gardaí should be community safety.” 

He added: “Community policing took a battering during austerity, we kinda were withdrawn from communities. Now, we have to take it back, go back into communities, recover that space, shift the balance of power.” 

But can community safety, and the protection of young people from drug gangs, be done in the current legal system?

“Are we getting anywhere in this war on drugs or does it need a really good debate and a complete rethink,” Mr D’Arcy posed.

“The US has spent trillions on it. Would we be better taking the product away from the gangs altogether and legalising it and the money spent on health promotion?

“Gangs operate in a never-ending cycle and we are shocked as young fellas get shot over small amounts. If it can happen in Drogheda, it can happen in Arklow or Tullamore – it’s not just disadvantaged communities in Dublin. We need to have a good hard look.

"Where are we going with these drug gangs. They are filling our prisons, they are creating levels of violence and intimidation in communities. Enormous amounts of money are to be made and it hasn’t reduced the availability of drugs on the street.” 

He continued: “I just can’t see us winning this war, I really can’t and it’s just causing so much hardship and mayhem and fear in communities and definitely the intimidation and violence is every present.” 

Dr Connolly said wars were won and lost with a lot of so-called collateral damage.

“In this context, a lot of the approach is purportedly to protect communities – but it hasn’t done that and, in fact, has exacerbated the problems for those communities, particularly those with embedded host drug markets.” 

We know the drug trade has become more violent, it is involving more younger people. There’s a lot more drugs, a lot more variety of drugs, there’s a lot more variety in how people source drugs. Drug prices have dropped. They are very easily accessible. 

"So, all the indicators of success there should be are not there – it’s going in the opposite direction.”

He said the issue of altering drug laws was the “elephant in the room” in terms of the debate.

“Since the first drugs strategy in the early 2000s there has always been a tension between a criminal justice approach and a health-oriented one,” he said. 

“We are now committed to a health-oriented approach, so that must oblige us to look at ‘what is the role of the criminal justice process?’” 

He added that tension “came to the surface” in the report on drug possession, carried out by an expert committee for the departments and health and justice and published in August 2019.

That committee recommended a limited alternative to criminalisation for possession of all drugs for personal use, with one or, at most, two cautions permissible by gardaí, in each case involving a referral to a health intervention. The proposal was accepted by the Government.

Dr Connolly said a Citizens’ Assembly approach to drugs, as proposed in the Programme for Government, was the way to proceed, as the position of Government departments and State agencies is not as dominant.

“Decriminalisation isn’t going to resolve the problems we’re talking about, but at least it’s a step in the direction of really questioning what the role of the criminal justice system is supposed to be and the whole purpose of deterrence,” he said.

A wicked problem

He said people need to examine if the criminal justice system was being counterproductive.

“Drugs are illicit, they create a large market, in that market young people are being exploited and very vulnerable people are being exploited and they have a right to be protected, and that’s an obligation on the State to protect those people, but it also requires of the citizens to really think deeply about how we want to approach this issue of drug use.” 

But he stressed that the issue should be seen as a “wicked problem”, in that “there are no simple answers to it” and requires a complex response.

“It is a wicked problem and what we’ve seen in the Citizens' Assembly around abortion and marriage equality that they seem to manage the extreme views and it seems quite a good model.” 

Mr D’Arcy said interventions aimed at young people being groomed into gangs will always face fundamental problems under the current legal model.

“For 40 years I’ve been working with young people caught up in drugs and criminality. I just don’t see how any legislation we’ve had has really made a change. 

Okay, you probably have better interventions for some young people, better services there for some young people, but the root cause of them becoming involved in criminality hasn’t been addressed – the poverty and the drug trade.

“The new youth justice strategy does take a welfare approach, very much so, and will aim to identify young people being sucked into criminality at an early age and try and divert them, but the attraction is still there - the drug gang is still there.

“There’s always going to be youngsters from core families, who are much more vulnerable, getting sucked in.” 

He said that although the drugs strategy was moving towards a health-oriented one and that the drug possession report was welcome, he said these were “small steps”.

“It would be interesting to look at the stats from Canada in three-or-four years’ time. They’ve not just decriminalised, Canada has gone a step further and legalised possession of cannabis and the growing of cannabis and shops are licensed to sell."

“For me, decriminalisation is just not charging people for personal use, you still have your product from the gang, which is almost legitimising the gang.

This [legalisation] involves taking money out of the drug gangs and taking the power out. It’s only one drug, but it’s a massive drug of choice.” 

Mr D'Arcy said: “I’m not promoting it, but I think there is a need for a debate on it, a hard debate.”

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