I was one of those lads, robbing shops, stealing cars

Vulnerable teens are easily tempted into lives of crime. A project in Dublin tries to divert them from this

Jonathan Dowling, youth worker at Belvedere Youth Club. By the age of 10, he says, he was robbing shops and by 14 he was helping older boys to steal cars. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Jonathan Dowling, youth worker at Belvedere Youth Club. By the age of 10, he says, he was robbing shops and by 14 he was helping older boys to steal cars. Photograph Nick Bradshaw


On a Wednesday afternoon at the Belvedere Youth Club, eight teenage boys are leaning over a pool table, dusting CD cases and glasses for fingerprints as two forensics gardaí look on.

Initially there are some hijinks when the teens are asked to don the blue plastic gloves. One snaps the elastic wristband of his friend’s glove. “Stop it you simple!” he says.

Shortly afterwards, they’re paying attention as forensic gardaí are showing them how to take DNA samples from saliva left on a glass. “What else can you take DNA from?” asks Sonya, one of the gardaí.

“Piss,” says one kid. “Blood,” he adds. He’s enjoying saying “piss” and “blood”.

Then a garda named Derek explains how they match crime-scene footprints to a database. “Do you keep these?” asks one shrewd youngster, hesitating before putting his foot down on the footprinting kit. Juvenile Liaison Officer Deirdre O’Neill laughs. “We do not keep them, no.”

This is part of a TAG (teenagers and guards) programme that brings young people and police together. Four of these boys are also participants in the youth club’s Garda Youth Diversion Project, NICKOL (North Inner City Keeps on Learning), run by project coordinator Oisin Costigan and youth justice worker Martin Saunders and funded by the European Social Fund and the Irish Youth Justice Service. NICKOL is written in a graffiti style on a wall beside a kitchenette. As well as a pool table and a games console, there are couches and bean bags here and an office off to the side of the room. The club also has an art room, a drama room, a room full of pool tables and a sports hall.

Last week, these boys visited Store Street Garda Station where they were shown a room filled with CCTV screens. “You can’t even light up a joint in this city without a camera looking at you,” one boy tells me with wonder.

Another boy apparently used the opportunity to ask clever questions about his rights in the event of a search. Young people in this neighbourhood get searched a lot. “They were good questions,” says Saunders.

In the coming weeks, the TAG programme will include a talk from the traffic police, a session on restorative justice and a football match involving kids and guards. “A mix of each on the two teams,” says Costigan. “Not kids versus guards. One project did that before and no one has ever done it since.” He laughs.

Before each session, Saunders ends up on the phone hustling the kids to the centre. “Anything could happen on the way,” he says. “They could be on the way with good intentions but then they get distracted. They meet someone. They wander off.”

The aim of the TAG project is simple. “It’s there to improve the relationship between teenagers and guards,” says Costigan. “If you ask the lads about guards, they’ll say they’re all pigs, but if they start seeing one guard differently, that changes things.”

A lot of their conflict tends to be with their mam. They begin to see females as the people telling them what to do but now they see men doing the same thing”

The aim of the Garda diversion project, on the other hand, which works specifically with kids who have been in trouble with the gardaí, is to stop recidivism. “To reduce recidivism,” says Costigan, correcting me. “If you go in and say, ‘We want to stop that young person ever committing an offence, then straightaway you’re losing’. We try and limit the amount of offences and bring it down. You try and change their attitudes and their value system.”


A Garda Youth Diversion Project has been operating here for 21 years now. In return for engaging with such a project, a young person who has been arrested will be cautioned rather than prosecuted. There are currently more than 100 such projects around the country, but changes are afoot. In order to comply with EU funding requirements, there are imminent plans to centralise the system, leading to fewer projects covering wider areas and to put the current contracts back out to tender.

Details of the new regime are sparse, but Costigan worries it will favour a more formalised “social work/probation” model that will involve fixed appointment times and narrower goals over the “youth work” model which they currently operate. The benefit of their current approach, he says, is that it’s rooted in the community and while it is very structured, it also allows participants to drop in on a more casual basis. This is, he believes, less stigmatising for the kids and increases the opportunities for engagement.

The NICKOL project currently has 20 young people on its books – all happen to be boys, all aged between 12 and 18. Most are referred here by gardaí but some have been referred by schools or parents. Some are referred for welfare reasons. Costigan shows me a risk-assessment survey they use to ascertain whether kids are at risk and need to be here. What are the most common offenses? “Theft, public order, anti-social behaviour, motor vehicle offences, trespass . . . Last year for the first time, begging came up as an offence. Usually it’s not violent offences.” He pauses. “Usually.”

NICKOL project coordinator Oisin Costigan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
NICKOL project coordinator Oisin Costigan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

In a huge number of cases, he says, they find there are literacy and numeracy issues that they can work on and that this automatically affects behaviour. “If you’re a 14-year-old with literacy level of an 11-year-old, it’s easier to get kicked out of a class than admit you can’t read something.”

Male role models

Costigan and Saunders also believe many of the boys lack male role models. “Out of the 20 we have, 19 come from single-parent families,” says Saunders. “They’re missing that male older figure. Seeing us doing something like cooking is important. To them that’s something their mam does. A lot of their conflict tends to be with their mam. They begin to see females as the people telling them what to do but now they see men doing the same thing.”

I hung around with 10 or 12 young people and two of them are in prison and eight of them are dead”

The other factor in youth crime, says Costigan, is simple. “It’s money,” he says. “The kids talk about ‘boredom’ and say there’s not enough to do but we’re in a city. I’m not going to accept that. The reality is they see people living these perceived lifestyles and they want that too. If you have a choice between going to school where you have poor literacy and know you’ll get kicked out of the class or you can go to the local park, sell a few sleeves of pills and have a couple of hundred quid in your pocket at 14 years of age, what are you going to do?”

So some of them get groomed into gangs? “Yes,” says Costigan. “But if you ask the lads here about gangs they’ll say there is none. Their idea of a gang is the Crips over in LA. But the dealers know who to look for and the type of personality and lads that they’re after. They’ll say ‘you just need to deliver this money to him over there, just money no drugs, fifty quid, no harm’. Soon they’re selling pills and soon they have a tab with the drug dealer.”

They can’t reach everyone, says Saunders, but they have plenty of success. “Seventy per cent of the kids have either got reduced crime rates or have stopped offending. There are six due to leave us this year. Out of that six, five have not committed an offence in the last 12 to 18 months.”

Jonathan Dowling, a 32-year-old youth worker at the Belvedere Youth Club, is one of the project’s success stories. By the age of 10, he says, he was robbing shops and by 14 he was helping older boys to steal cars. “I was one of these lads,” he says. “I conformed to the social norms of everything that was going on around me. This was a safe place to come and I realised there was more to life. I was here for seven years . . . If you’d said to me then I’d go to college I’d have laughed at you.”

What saved him? Meeting a youth worker named Dave with whom he bonded. “I started doing really well in school and started feeling confident and I always wanted to ring him up and tell him when I did something good.”

‘I fell off the wagon’

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, he says. “I fell off the wagon again at 16 and started messing about again in things I amn’t proud of.”

Why? “I was like Pavlov’s dog. I was just conditioned to be like that because I knew nothing else. When you’re in a bubble you think everything in it is normal and supposed to happen.”

Later in life, with some guidance from the youth workers on the programme, he studied youth work and now he’s 32, has worked abroad and is about to start doing a masters. The odds were not in his favour. “I hung around with 10 or 12 young people and two of them are in prison and eight of them are dead.”

How did his friends die? “A combination of drugs and suicide,” he says. One of them, Terence Wheelock, died in police custody in 2005.

I asked to come here. I was sick of it all. Being brought home by the guards every day. Suspended from school all the time. My mam crying”

Now it’s Dowling’s “calling” to work with kids who remind him of himself. “It’s a natural instinct for young people in the city to resist everything,” he says. “If you offer them €100 they’ll say ‘no’. They always think there’s something else going on because there usually is . . . It’s not realistic to believe 100 per cent of them will stop. But some will listen and it will make a difference for that young person . . . I was one of them. I was a nuisance. I realise how much heartache I caused over the years.”

Jeannette, the mother of one of the participants, is in the middle of this heartache. A year ago, she got a phone call from a drug dealer saying that her 15-year-old son Simon owed him €1,000 for tablets and that he expected her to pay it. She was advised by several people not to pay the debt but she managed to raise the money and pay. Why? “Because people get shot for less.”

Simon promised that would be the end of it but he was thin and red-eyed and she suspected he was using a lot of drugs himself. He also spent a lot of his time with his alcoholic father where she couldn’t keep an eye on him. Then, several months ago, he was caught with hundreds of tablets and there were texts on his phone that suggested he was also selling cocaine. They are currently waiting to see what the legal consequences of all this will be.

Worse trouble

She thinks Simon is hurting due to his parents’ separation and his father’s alcoholism and is unable to express himself. She also thinks if it was not for the NICKOL project he would be in significantly worse trouble. She says he trusts them there and talks to them in ways he won’t necessarily talk to her. “He’s not a bad child,” she says. “He just wants to please everyone. He’s a gilly for the older guys selling . . . he’s trying to be the hard man and doesn’t want to let the bigger crowd down.”

Many of the other boys are doing quite well. A week later, I return to the youth club and I’m greeted by the sight of two of them assembling a flat-pack television table.

“That’s the side,” insists 16-year-old Jon.

“No that’s the roof, you ham,” says 15-year-old Ben.

“How good are you at flatpack?” whispers Costigan to me and then, to the lads, he says, “Do you want to take a break and talk to Patrick?”

“If there are drinks,” says Jon.

“There’s water,” says Saunders.

“No!” groan Jon and Ben in unison. “Not water!”

Youth justice worker Martin Saunders at Belvedere Youth Club on Buckingham Street. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Youth justice worker Martin Saunders at Belvedere Youth Club on Buckingham Street. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Saunders is dispatched to buy soft drinks and we sit down at a table in the room next door. Jon had formerly lived with a sick grandmother in another country where he got into trouble, smashing windows and getting into fights. When his father, a recovering alcoholic, suggested he come live with him in Dublin, he vowed to change. “I said to myself ‘Alright, this is the day when you stop being a hooligan, stop fighting, stop messing’. But I went to school and everything started again. I met the boys and we started hanging around and we started fighting. The principal rang my da every day.”

He says he was instantly impressed when he called Costigan “sir” and Costigan said, “There is only one rule, don’t call me ‘sir’.”

Ben, who lives with his mother, seems quieter and his body language is more guarded. He was in even worse trouble than Jon, he says, when he first came here at the age of 13. What was he doing? “Smashing cars. Burning them. Robbing shops. Smashing windows. Fighting. Throwing eggs. Throwing stuff at the gardaí. Robbing bikes and mopeds.”

He sounds tired as he says it. “I asked to come here. I was sick of it all. Being brought home by the guards every day. Suspended from school all the time. My mam crying.”

In the community they have this persona they have to live up to. They have to be this character”

Why did they do these things? “Every single boy did it so we just started doing it too,” says Jon. “There’s nothing more important than hanging round with friends.”

They’ve both calmed down a lot, they tell me. How has coming here helped them? “You can talk about problems at home or outside,” says Jon. “And they will listen. It stays between them and you.”

“They helped me with my anger,” says Ben. “I’m still angry but I can hold it inside now. Before, if a teacher gave out to me I’d snap straight away. I’d scream at them. Now I barely snap anymore.”

What is he angry about? “Everything,” he says quietly.

At NICKOL, they get help with school work, they do cookery classes and play sport and generally learn about anger-management. Some of them are, at Saunders’s instigation, vying for a Gaisce award (the president’s development programme for young people). The group are also brought on outings. They recently went to London and saw the musical Wicked. “I’d never been in a place like that before,” says Jon. “It was brilliant. All around us people in suits and brilliant clothes and we’re just in Nike, just boys from Dublin on a trip.”

The day after my visit they’re all going to see Avengers Infinity War in the cinema. “With the guards,” says Costigan.

“Are you serious?” says Ben. “With the guards? I don’t want to go now.”

Would they be worried about being seen with guards? “No,” says Jon.

“I would,” says Ben. “I don’t want to be seen with them. You get called a rat.”

Does that happen? “Yes. Say you got caught with tablets and you came out of the station without a charge. You’d get called a rat.”

Is it scary living around open drug dealing? “I’ve seen it all my life,” says Ben. “I walk by [the dealers]and if I know them I say ‘alright’. It doesn’t really bother me anymore. I’ve seen it since wearing nappies.”

Saunders arrives in with soft drinks. “I bet he got Coke Zero because he says it’s healthier,” says Ben with disapproval, “I’m going to turn into Coke Zero.”

Easy familiarity

There’s an easy familiarity between the boys and the youth workers. Ben is now lying across the pool table sipping his drink. Costigan chides Jon for staying up all night playing video games. Ben decides to laugh at Costigan’s legs for some reason. “You’ve never seen my legs!” says Costigan.

“We have,” says Jon. “That day you came down to the river you were wearing shorts.”

“Oh yeah,” says Costigan.

So is it just the snacks they’re here for? “No,” says Ben. “They help you with stuff. If you have problems at home that you don’t want to talk to anyone else about you can talk to them about it. And if you have problems you don’t want to talk to your ma about, you can talk to them.”

“Let’s fix that table,” says Costigan.

“Oh God no,” says Ben.

I’m not using the boy’s real names in this piece so I ask what I should use instead. “You should call them Tupac and Biggie,” says Saunders.

“Yeah,” says Jon, who’s wearing a Tupac tee-shirt. “Call us Tupac and Biggie.”

Acting tough all the time can be difficult for these teenagers, Costigan tells me. “You see them sometimes on two massive beanbags watching a movie, starting to lean on each other more. They talk about family circumstances. They talk about housing issues.”

“In the community they have this persona they have to live up to,” says Saunders. “They have to be this character. They can’t let their guard down. There’s a few of them I think are tired of playing the role they have. Being in here allows them to escape.”