Women dice with death nightly on edge of the banking belt

 

She could have been Sinead Kelly. The woman who got into a Dublin taxi on Sunday night, hours before the 21year-old was murdered, was taking as much of a risk.

She told the driver she had just stolen £70 from a man. She had promised him sex, shoved the money in her bag, told him she was going to get a key to a flat, and run away.

The driver dropped the woman in Baggot Street at around midnight and warned her that the man, and others like him, could catch up with her. "I told her she was dicing with death."

When he heard reports of the murder on Monday he wondered had he been horribly right.

But the woman was not Sinead, according to gardai. Like the murder victim, she was a heroin addict. She told the driver she had a £1,000-a-week habit. Her only defence was a make-up compact. She would take it out of her handbag and pretend it was a mobile phone when she was frightened.

Sinead worked alone. She walked up and down on the dark stretch of canal at Herbert Place, soliciting clients in busy Baggot Street before taking them down the deserted canal path. She knew other girls working the same beat but few of them worked in pairs, as some older prostitutes do.

On the night she died she was wearing jeans, a light top and canvas shoes. She never wore high heels or short skirts, one prostitute said. They only knew her in jeans and a leather jacket. When her body was found she had nothing but the clothes she was wearing.

She was the eldest of four children from a stable home in a comfortable Santry housing estate, overlooked by Ballymun flats. Things went wrong three years ago, when she started using drugs. Since then she had been living with various boyfriends in north Dublin.

Another heroin addict working as a prostitute said Sinead was seen by the other women as naive.

"I remember one fellow who had a bit of an attitude and I wouldn't get into the car. He drove off and Sinead couldn't understand why I hadn't gone with him."

The streets between Fitzwilliam Street and the canal have been a red light area for decades. Women have always walked Dublin's swankiest business address, after the investment bankers, advertising executives and software professionals have gone home.

The trade has never been safe. A 1996 survey found that one in five prostitutes had been attacked by clients and 11 per cent had been raped. But the canal area was seen as relatively better than Dublin's other prostitution district around Benburb Street.

The northside area was the beat young heroin addicts worked, often with volatile boyfriends waiting nearby to spend the takings.

However, gardai have seen increasing levels of violence in the south Dublin district in the last year, with addicts moving in. Assaults on prostitutes and clients, some involving blood-filled syringes, had increased to the point that both gardai and women had predicted a murder was only a matter of time.

A man has been charged in relation to three violent sexual assaults on prostitutes in November 1997. Sinead was raped and beaten shortly before Christmas, after being picked up in the same area where she was murdered. Gardai do not believe this attack is related to her murder.

Much of the violence, including attacks on men looking for prostitutes, goes unreported.

"You have a situation where there is guaranteed money," says one senior garda. `There are men carrying cash, a lot more than they would normally carry. It could be open season. Up to now people have been lucky."

The older women take precautions and believe they have a better nose for trouble, refusing men who appear potentially violent.

A booklet written by a former New York prostitute, The Tricks of the Trade, is used in workshops on the subject at the Baggot Street Community Hospital. The tricks include not wearing scarves or necklaces because you can be strangled with them, never wearing long earrings because your ear-lobes can be ripped apart by an attacker, and always wearing flat shoes for a quick getaway.

But new addict-prostitutes do not play by the rules or have anyone to look out for them.

The hospital's Women's Health Project also runs a weekly two-hour clinic providing counselling, STD screening and free condoms to an average of 20 women a night. They have about 300 prostitutes on their books.

Some of the women carry Stanley knives, blades or snooker balls in socks to defend themselves, but they are conscious that these could be used against themselves. Older women blame the addicts and the legislation for making the streets more dangerous.

It is possible that Sinead was not murdered by a client.

There is comparatively little drug-dealing in the area. That Sinead returned to the canal bank after being raped and beaten in December is not unusual, and especially not for those feeding a heroin habit.

"Anybody's liable to have their kid down there," one garda familiar with the trade says. "People don't understand the drug problem. They will do anything to get gear."