Limerick is safer, but threats still remain

Locals say sustained effort required to tackle ingrained criminality and restore hope

Shane Geoghegan’s parents Tom and Mary and his brother Anthony follow the hearse at his funeral in November 2008. Phortograph: Julien Behal/PA

Shane Geoghegan’s parents Tom and Mary and his brother Anthony follow the hearse at his funeral in November 2008. Phortograph: Julien Behal/PA

Wed, Aug 14, 2013, 01:00

There were no celebrations, cheers or spontaneous displays of joy. Instead, the life sentence handed down yesterday to John Dundon, leader of Limerick’s most feared criminal gang, was greeted with quiet relief.

Dundon’s conviction comes after a period of sustained success by the Garda in placing some of the most high-profile gang members behind bars.

In all, 30 high-profile criminals involved in the Limerick drug wars are in prison, while twice that number have served time over recent years.

The city, undoubtedly, is a safer place as a result. Six years ago more than 100 shootings were recorded. Last year, there were fewer than 10. Organised criminal activity on the ground has also dropped dramatically.

Tougher anti-gangland laws, a shift in policing tactics and better resources have all played a part in turning the tide against a rise in criminality, which had seemed to be spiralling out of control.

There were many moments of despair when locals questioned whether the institutions of the State were able – or interested – to mount an effective challenge to those responsible.

As Roy Collins, who was murdered in 2009, found, witness protection was no obstacle to the power and menace of the family-based gangs. And, as Shane Geoghegan’s death showed, any decent citizen could become a target.

Dundon’s conviction shows that the State is capable of tackling these seemingly intractable issues. Through intelligence-led and targeted policing, it had helped to restore some sense of justice for a city which had been through the mill.

While there is relief at this latest development in the battle against criminality, many point however to the need for a sustained effort to tackle ingrained problems.

“Remember, the neglect in Limerick wasn’t a recent issue,” said one former senior city official, who declined to be named. “This happened over the course of three decades. You can’t change that overnight.

“We have to make sure that a new generation doesn’t step into the vacuum left behind.”

The scale of that challenge is daunting. Dr Niamh Hourigan, a Limerick-born sociologist, found as much during her in- depth community level study of fear and feuding in the city between 2007 and 2010.

Her study chronicles mothers who consciously decide to raise their children “tough” simply to enable them to survive, to children who have worked hard to acquire the mannerisms of “hard men”in order to survive, to the “serious players” in feuding whose stress disorders are comparable to those of soldiers in war zones.

She found that the world view of criminal family gangs had been markedly internalised by local residents.

As Ann, a single mother, observed in Dr Hourigan’s study: “ They want you to keep your head down and just put up with it, even if there are gunshots comin’ in your window and you’re lyin’ on the floor with your kids, even if they’re all shoutin’ and roarin’ at three in the morning and your baby is cryin’ an’ upset.

“What they want is for you to keep your head down and just shut the f*ck up and accept that that’s your life, full stop.”

It is still a daunting and tentative process of recovery. Providing meaningful alternatives for young people, who see little option outside of drugs as a way of life, will be crucial. Maintaining the momentum, political will and resources involved in the regeneration of Limerick will be crucial too. Trying to get State and community agencies to work together is another ever-present challenge.

For now, few are celebrating. These developments are hugely encouraging – but they are just milestones on a much longer road to recovery for the city and some of its embattled residents.