Limerick:'Worse now than before'


Limerick’s regeneration project is in jeopardy due to a scarcity of public funding and locals in the city’s most disadvantaged estates are becoming disillusioned, writes JAMIE SMYTHSocial Affairs Correspondent

‘NEXT STOP, New Life – Regeneration five minutes away,” proclaims the colourful mural in the sports hall at the newly built youth centre on the Southill estate in Limerick. It is one of scores of paintings prepared by local children as part of a project to identify what the Government’s €3 billion regeneration project in Limerick means for them and their community. The images of smiling faces, playgrounds, rainbows, trees and flowers are in stark contrast to the drab reality of the estate outside, where burnt-out houses and illegal dumping blight the landscape.

“The kids are really enthusiastic about the regeneration. You can see on the paintings they have set out life goals. One wants to be a mechanic, another a boxer,” says Ciara Kane, who manages the youth centre, which is based in a derelict factory.

The centre is one of the first social initiatives funded by Limerick Regeneration, which is the agency co-ordinating the redevelopment of the Southill, Moyross, St Mary’s Park and Ballinacurra Weston estates. It is a fantastic resource, providing local kids with indoor soccer pitches, an art room, computers, a cafe and a range of youth services. Getting young people involved in sport and other community-based activities is a key way of keeping them off the streets where they could get involved in anti-social behaviour and other trouble. It gives them hope that things are getting better in the area, says Kane.

The need for a major regeneration in Southill is beyond doubt. Walk a few hundred metres from the youth centre and you feel like you are in a third-world slum. Poverty, drugs, and intimidation are part of everyday life on the estate, which consists of 1,000 houses – about half of which have been condemned for demolition by Limerick Regeneration. High crime rates, unemployment rates at least four times the national average and high levels of single-parent families combine to create levels of social deprivation that make living on the estate at best a challenge and at worst hellish.

Sarah (not her real name) feels lucky to have escaped Southill with her life. She lived there for almost 30 years without any problems, and enjoyed the tight-knit community atmosphere in the estate. But when a family linked to serious crime moved into her street, her life and those of her family changed utterly.

“They broke all my windows, put fireworks through my letter box, and attacked my dogs with iron bars. It was unbearable. I couldn’t leave the house for fear I’d return and it would be burnt down,” she says in a voice that shakes following years of intimidation.

She says her tormentors ranged in ages from four to 14. Because they were juveniles they could not be prosecuted, and their parents didn’t care. “Animals wouldn’t live like they do,” says Sarah, who was recently relocated to another area by Limerick Regeneration, leaving her old home derelict, like scores of other houses on the estate.

Sarah says she would return to Southill when regeneration is complete if the estate changes and the troublemakers are removed. But an admission by local TD and Minister for Defence Willie O’Dea last week that the Government can’t afford to put up the €1.7 billion public funds needed to demolish 2,500 homes, create two new town centres and break the “cycle of disadvantage” suggests she could be waiting a very long time.

The Government is investigating whether it can raise additional private money to kickstart the project. But after 2½ years of waiting for regeneration to happen, and no new houses built yet, local people are becoming disillusioned with the project.

“I’ll be a pensioner by the time any of this happens,” says Breda, who lives on her own in the sprawling Moyross estate in north Limerick, which became the catalyst for regeneration following a petrol-bomb attack on a car containing youngsters Millie and Gavin Murray in 2006. This tragic incident, when three 17-year-olds threw a petrol bomb into the car of Millie’s and Gavin’s mother, with the two children inside, drew world attention to the estate.

“All they’ve done is move a few people out of the estate and board up some houses. Many of these abandoned homes are then burnt to the ground or infested with rats. Nothing new has been built. It’s worse now than it was before,” says Breda, pointing out the gaps in the rows of houses where a home has been burnt out and then demolished.

“This is never going to happen,” says Derek, a middle-aged man making the long walk to the single row of shops at the entrance to Moyross. He says regeneration is just the latest in a long list of broken promises made to people in Moyross by politicians.

BRENDAN KENNY, chief executive of Limerick Regeneration, says he understands people’s frustrations at the slow pace of the project and admits the State’s financial problems are causing delays in delivery.

But he says tangible social projects are being delivered and are helping to stabilise life on the estates. “We need to get the social side of the project going before we build houses. This is about helping families develop parenting skills, diverting children from anti-social behaviour and targeting crime,” says Kenny, who points to a series of grants the agency has made to youth clubs and other bodies involved in the regeneration process.

But he says serious money now needs to be committed by Government to get the big projects started and to prevent local communities from losing hope and going backwards.

“I’ll be bringing a new plan to Government next month for several projects, including a new community centre and through-road for Moyross and a primary healthcare centre, educational facilities and replacement housing in the other areas,” he says.

He says the agency may ask the Government to provide tax incentives to attract private developers to the project and to consider leasing social housing from the private sector.

Limerick Regeneration is also revisiting the masterplan drawn up in 2008, and admits the timeframe for delivery will need to be extended beyond 2018. It is unclear how they plan to proceed, given the lack of cash available to begin a major building programme. But it is likely that many of the 2,500 houses earmarked for demolition and rebuilding may now be refurbished, according to the agency.

Financial problems are not the only challenge for the project. There are concerns within the regeneration team and in local communities about the ability of Limerick City Council to take over the lead role of overseeing the project in 2012 as planned.

“We need someone in charge to say this needs to be done or this family needs a certain type of support. We have too many people working on individual problems without co-operating,” says Paddy Flannery, manager of the Moyross community enterprise centre.

“There can be five, six or seven State agencies dealing with one family. They are all doing their best but often not sharing information or working together,” he says.

DESPITE THE DELAYSand a growing sense of disillusionment with the project, progress has been made.

At The Bays youth centre in Moyross, groups of teenagers are playing pool, while others are attending boxing training in the neighbouring hall. “Crime has definitely dropped in Moyross, because there are so many gardaí around these days,” says one teenager, who is attending a Garda diversion project that aims to keep young offenders out of detention through close supervision, family supports, and activities.

“I was joyriding when I was 14. But a lot of joyriders have been locked up in the last few years. There was also a lot more fighting a few years ago . . . people arguing with each other,” says the teenager, who like many boys on the estate has a passion for the horses that roam many of the green areas.

The 100 extra gardaí provided to the city as part of the regeneration process has cut down the level of anti-social behaviour in Moyross, and targeted the gangs that deal drugs and have made Limerick synonymous with serious crime.

“Limerick is a tough place to police. The planners didn’t do a good job 30 years ago when they designed the estate with just one way in and lots of cul de sacs,” says Luke Conlon, an inspector in charge of community policing in Moyross. “But there is no doubt the level of crime in Moyross has dramatically fallen since regeneration started,” he says.

Most key members of the two biggest criminal gangs in Limerick, the Dundon-McCarthys and the Keane-Collopys, are currently in prison, and the murder rate halved in 2009, with three killings in the city, which is less than the number of gangland murders in Dublin this January.

Conlon says building new homes is not the solution to the estates’ problems. “We need to educate families to bring their kids up well, keep children in school and get them involved in sports and activities. If we don’t attract the youngsters then they will focus on other attractions that they perceive as cool ways to get on in life, such as guns and drugs,” he says.

But without a visible sign of regeneration some time soon, the real fear is that people could quickly lose hope and that the estates could slip back into a mood of despair characterised by crime and deprivation.

The friars who work on the soul of Moyross

AMONG THEstrangest sights in Moyross are the Franciscan monks who are often seen playing American football or chatting with local children in between the burnt-out and boarded-up houses.

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal set up in one of the toughest parts of Moyross in 2007. The monks follow in the footsteps of St Francis by rejecting materialism. The order, which broke away from the Capuchin Order of the Franciscans, set up its first Friary in the Bronx in 1987, and has churches in London, Bradford, Honduras and Nicaragua. It has grown to 125 monks, and last October set up a new friary in Derry.

“When I came here first to visit in 2006 and saw the burnt-out cars, graffiti and garbage, I thought this is exactly the type of place that attracts us. I didn’t know much about the gangster element at that time,” says Brother Sean, who is one of five monks in the friary, which has been converted out of three abandoned council houses.

He says people often hold misconceptions about Moyross, which he says is much quieter than the media portray. He has only seen one violent incident. It involved a woman who was set upon by a crowd and almost kicked to death.

But violence and deprivation do not deter the Franciscans.

“Just before we got here there was the incident with Millie and Gavin. The Bishop of Limerick Donal Murray rang us and I think he expected we would change our minds about coming to Moyross. But this only solidified our reason for coming,” he says.

The Franciscans are popular with local children, although some older members of the community are more sceptical about their presence. “They feed off poverty and deprivation so I don’t see how they will help in the long term,” says one community worker.

They monks’ day centres around prayer. They also make house visits in order to build relationships with the local community, and they organise social events and masses. “A lot of these children just want to know someone cares about them. They want people to spend time with them. They want positive male role models,” he says.

The monks recently began work on a garden on the cul de sac to try to lift people’s spirits. “We hope our garden blossoms for people this year,” says Brother Sean. “We want to help the poor. But not the way the regeneration scheme wants to do it. We are working on the soul,” he says.