A feud in Drogheda: ‘The violence has been building for years’

There is a sense of fear in the Moneymore estate. Some are afraid to leave their homes

Hundreds of people gathered in Drogheda to call for an end to the recent spate of violence. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

On a cold Tuesday afternoon, there is no one out on the streets of Moneymore, one of the estates at the heart of a violent feud that has gripped Drogheda. Very few locals wish to speak publicly about the violence, but all reference the fear the feud has brought to the Co Louth town.

The feud between two drug gangs has been escalating since the middle of last year, with each tit-for-tat attack provoking retaliation from the other side.

It is the audacity of recent attacks that has shocked locals and public representatives. Last Thursday, a car pulled up on Hardman’s Garden in broad daylight, barely stopping before a gunman got out to fire a number of shots at men working in a front garden.

A video of the shooting shows bullets narrowly missing a person walking past the home seconds before the gunman opened fire

A video of the shooting, seen by The Irish Times, shows bullets narrowly missing a member of the public walking past the home seconds before the gunman opened fire. One of the group targeted was hit, receiving a number of gunshot wounds, but survived.

Those inside a busy shop directly across from the shooting hid down the back of the store, as the front shutters were pulled down in panic.

The feud is being waged between two drug gangs based mainly in Drogheda, characterised by extreme violence. Last weekend’s violence was the latest in a series of high-profile incidents since last July, when a gang member was shot at his home on a Drogheda halting site and left paralysed.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has said only a small number of criminals are involved.

One of the gangs is significant in the region. With a propensity for extreme violence, the gang includes members of the Traveller community and settled people, gardaí say.

The second gang is of national scale. It has been targeted by the Garda’s national units for many years and is suspected of involvement in at least three murders, none of them linked to the feud.

A visit to the most-affected areas of Drogheda leaves no doubt that these gangs have instilled fear in the local community. A woman pushing a child in a buggy on the same street as the home targeted this week only shakes her head when approached to speak about the recent violence. “I live too close,” she says, before hurrying on.

A house damaged in a petrol bomb attack in Loughboy, Drogheda, Co Louth. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
A house damaged in a petrol bomb attack in Loughboy, Drogheda, Co Louth. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
If you think your child is going to get beaten up, and brought back with two broken legs, you’ll get the money

“People are terrified,” is all one older woman will stop to say, before walking on. When a nearby shopkeeper is asked for his opinion on the feud, he declines to talk: “I’ve a business here, I want to hang on to it,” he says.

Moneymore housing estate is one of the main areas plagued by the violence, a community caught in the grip of intimidation from criminal factions who are extorting families over drug debts.

Walking through the area this week, boarded-up petrol-bombed houses dot the estate. A Garda car on patrol crawls along the roads in laps, a sign of the increased police presence in recent weeks.

There is a worn “children at play” signpost at the entrance of the housing estate, but few parents let their children out to play unattended now.

Drug debts, and the intimidation then put on families to pay up, have created an atmosphere of fear in the estate, and in other affected communities. When a son or daughter cannot afford to pay back their debt, the parents will be threatened, or the grandparents.

The Red Door project is one of the few drugs addiction services in Drogheda, operating since 2010.

Joanne O’Dwyer, who runs the organisation’s day service, says one of the problems is that drug debts are “sold on”, with the amount owed often increasing dramatically as a result.

If a drug debt of €3,000 is owed, and a dealer is struggling to collect the payment, they may sell the debt on to someone further up the chain – who the initial dealer themselves may owe money to. In this transaction, the amount owed can often be arbitrarily increased, or more than doubled, with threats of violence quickly following if it is not paid.

“We’re talking massive amounts of money. Imagine €10,000 for a family that has no money,” says Louise Mahony, overall manager of the Red Door project.

“If you think your child is going to get beaten up, taken away in a van, and brought back two days later with two broken legs, you’ll get the money,” she says.

There have been reports of mothers threatened that a daughter will be abducted and raped if the family do not pay the debts, Mahony says.

In the past, arrangements may have been made between a dealer and the father of a youth who owes money to make repayments over a period of time, but this is seen less and less. The feud has brought a new level of ruthlessness to the drugs trade in the area.

Then, even when the huge debts are paid, often the criminals will come back to extort the family for more money, says O’Dwyer. “There is huge fear and intimidation, and the families won’t go to the guards because they’re terrified,” she says.

They have to watch where their children are playing just in case anything does happen, that the kids can be brought in

“The horse has bolted at this stage. Going forward, if we’re to make sure this problem doesn’t become anything like Limerick, there needs to be a huge amount of resources pumped into the town,” O’Dwyer says.

The Red Door service was set up in 2010, with a budget of €85,000; despite the dramatic growth of Drogheda’s drug problem since, the organisation’s current HSE funding is only €149,000.

Mahony says the town needs a Government-backed report to establish the degree of the area’s drug problem, and to examine where the gaps are in existing services.

Mairéad Davis is the co-ordinator of a Family Resource Centre located in the heart of Moneymore estate. The service provides counselling, various courses and a community Garda clinic, and regularly distributes food hampers to the community.

“There is a sense of fear. People are very resilient here, but in the evening time they shut themselves in. They have to watch where their children are playing just in case anything does happen, that the kids can be brought in,” Davis tells The Irish Times.

One unacknowledged aspect of the intimidation around drug debts is an increasing number of people who owe money taking their own lives. “We would have seen there would be people that would have owed money, and rather than risking their family get hurt they actually die by suicide,” she says.

The problem has increased in recent years, Davis says, but the actual number of these victims of intimidation are unknown.

The resource centre is located in a refurbished house, and has started a campaign, with a handful of other local community organisations, for funding for a dedicated shared premises.

Many people in the estate who would wish to sell and move out “can’t give their houses away”, Davis says.

“We see people that leave at the weekends, because they don’t feel safe here, and go to stay with relatives for a while.”

In other cases, families who have relatives on one side of the feud have been told to leave the estate, or harm will come to them.

The service has seen increasing numbers of children and adolescents availing of counselling for anxiety issues, due to the violence.

The numbers attending a monthly clinic with the community Garda have dropped off, and recently many locals will not even approach the centre if a Garda car is parked outside, she said.

A family fun day organised to celebrate the centre’s 10-year anniversary in Moneymore for Saturday had to be cancelled. “There’s so much going on that we can’t say that everybody is going to be safe. Which is sad for the community – it would have been a fun day for the kids,” Davis says.

Other areas have also seen the violence of the feud come to their doors. Recently a home in nearby Loughboy was petrol-bombed, with the family inside lucky to escape as the fire spread through the house, according to local sources.

Among locals who do feel comfortable talking about the feud, a lack of Garda resources emerges as a common problem.

Garda armed support patrol in the St Laurence Park area of Drogheda, Co Louth. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Garda armed support patrol in the St Laurence Park area of Drogheda, Co Louth. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The warring factions, they’ve shown no mercy, attacks could occur anywhere at any time

Anthony Walsh (66) has lived in Drogheda all his life, and says the recent violence has been “building up for years”.

The Garda is under-resourced, and has not had the manpower to get the escalating criminality under control, he says. “People in general who you talk to are getting on with their lives . . . But if you live in an area affected then it’s a different situation,” he says.

Kevin Pilkington (65) has lived nearby in Ardee for the past three years, and on Tuesday is out shopping on West Street, the centre of Drogheda town.

“Yesterday, for the first time since I’ve been over here, I noticed loads of police cars around. My partner is in the hospital at the moment, so I park my car in Moneymore, which is one of the bad areas,” he says.

“It makes me think now about where I park, where before I never gave it a second thought, but I must admit when I park there now it does go through my mind, am I being in the right area?”

Last year more than 400,000 people visited Drogheda for the Fleadh Cheoil traditional Irish music festival, a big success story for the town.

Now there is a fear the violent feuding will damage the reputation of the area, and its attraction as a tourist destination. Shona McManus, president of Drogheda Chamber of Commerce, says getting this series of crimes under control quickly is “critical”.

The warring factions, they’ve shown no mercy. Attacks could occur anywhere at any time. I’ve been a public rep for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it

“Drogheda is a rapidly growing, very positive place,” she says. References to crime and drugs are the last thing local people want to come up when someone searches for Drogheda online, she says.

Fine Gael TD for Louth Fergus O’Dowd says that now “everybody feels vulnerable” in the town.

“The warring factions, they’ve shown no mercy. Attacks could occur anywhere at any time,” he says. “I’ve been a public rep for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The announcement from Garda Commissioner Drew Harris this week that 25 extra gardaí would be provided to help tackle the feud was welcome news, he says. “For too long there wasn’t enough gardaí, and they weren’t getting the support they need,” O’Dowd says.

Former Sinn Féin leader and Louth TD Gerry Adams says a Garda programme to receive reports of drug debt extortion was not working. Between 2014 and 2017, the intimidation programme received only one formal report across the entire northern Garda region, Department of Justice figures show.

“What’s required is a multi-agency approach, including the drugs and addiction services,” to properly tackle the problem of drug debt intimidation, says Adams.

Kenneth Flood is a local Sinn Féin councillor, and chairs the Drogheda joint policing committee. One of the feuding factions sought to gain a larger foothold in the drugs trade, and had been buying up drug debts from others “like vulture funds” in the past year, he says.

The trust has broken down between communities and gardaí, and there is a fear of retaliation by the gangs if anyone spoke to the authorities, he says.

All players on both sides of the feud are well known to gardaí, and “everything is in place” to bring the violence under control, Flood says.

But if action was not taken by gardaí, and resources not provided, he says, “this feud has the potential to go for years”.