Murder in Finglas: ‘These people are throwing away lives’

A week after a 29-year-old father was shot dead in Finglas there are fears of an escalation that will draw in already traumatised young people

It’s a wet afternoon on Finglas’s Deanstown Avenue – site of the first gang land shooting of the year last weekend – with few people around. Two young men, one straddling an electric scooter, suggest “it’s because everyone is so sad”.

James Whelan (29), a father of one, was shot dead at about 4.30am on Sunday morning in what is being described by gardaí as a "major escalation" of a feud in the north Dublin suburb.

The men, in their mid-20s, say they knew the victim, and describe him as “one of the best”.

“He wouldn’t leave you sitting. We’ve lost a good man.”

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Asked whether they would be concerned about a spiral of tit-for-tat killings, they shake their heads. “No, what could happen? We’re out. Nothing’s going to happen.”

They won’t elaborate on what they mean, but repeat several times “we’ve lost a good man”.

Over the next half an hour just one of the few people passing a large, makeshift “shrine” to Whelan will stop to talk to a journalist.

The older woman says “of course” she’s worried about further violence.

“I have six children and they are all grown up, so I don’t worry about my own, but I would be very worried if I had children. I wouldn’t be letting them out.

“I don’t know what the shooting was about. I don’t want to know. But I’m angry. My friend’s daughter is 36, has cancer and only months to live, while these people are throwing away lives.”

Agreeing some young people are being recruited into criminality, she shrugs her shoulders. “They are well and truly sucked in, those who want to be. If they’re already there, hard to see how you’d get them out.”

The “shrine” includes dozens of bunches of flowers, photographs of Whelan variously with friends, a baby and with a small dog; a small, brown sign with a cartoon character that might have been affixed to his childhood bedroom door says “James’s room”, and, a smartphone tucked between bouquets. One card reads: “Dear brother, love, laughter, happy times past, memories of you will forever last.”

Violence

A week on from Whelan’s death and concerns about ensuing violence remain and come with a resignation that little can be done to prevent it if it does arise. There is irritation too that it takes a shooting like this to bring attention to ongoing issues.

"There is always concern and fear about retaliations," says Linda Carroll, drugs outreach worker with the Finglas Addiction Support Team (Fast). "But sale and supply is still going on no matter what. Drug use has increased. Crack use is increased. For several years we have had pop-up tents for people to come and use. It's not new. It's not all of a sudden. It just happens to be elevated because of that shooting."

More pressing, she says, is the traumatic impact of the violence amid ongoing trauma in the lives of many families, particularly as the community emerges from the toll exacted by Covid.

Finglas is a large, sprawling suburb, with a socially-mixed population of over 30,000 people. Those living and working here describe a “real heart and strength” of Finglas, and decry a “stigmatisation” perpetuated by “snippets in the media about drugs, crimes, poverty” that are “all bad”.

"It gives you a really wrong picture of the community," says Co Laois woman Amy Roche, chief executive of Fast. "I am here since 2019, and am overwhelmed with how people are really invested in this community. There is more of that happening here than anything , but then you get this one pocket of crime and it blows everything out of the water."

Poverty

Nonetheless, Finglas has more poverty, experiences more violence and its children and young people have fewer accessible opportunities than most communities across the State.

The Pobal deprivation index, drawing on 2016 Census data, classifies all of Finglas as “disadvantaged”, with numerous areas “very disadvantaged”.

The Virginia Park area, close to where Whelan was shot, is described as "very disadvantaged", with a male unemployment rate of 38 per cent and a female unemployment rate of 23 per cent.

It shows 30 per cent of the adult population have only a primary education, just 8 per cent have a third-level qualification and 54 per cent of families with children are headed by lone parents.

Services like Barnardos and Fast describe the “intergenerational trauma” many of the families they work with experience, including childhood abuse, childhood neglect, sexual abuse, domestic violence, undiagnosed mental health issues, and undiagnosed educational disabilities.

Clodagh Carroll, Barnardos' assistant director of services in the Finglas area, works with parents with "unresolved trauma".

She speaks of a “high level of need” exacerbated by the Covid lockdowns as already overwhelmed parents faced increased demands of children home all day.

Children for whom school provided “predictability, safety and certainty” lost that overnight, she say. “There was a grieving process for some. The impact is still there on children’s social and emotional wellbeing, higher levels of anxiety.”

This has provided a fertile ground for gangs to recruit, particularly vulnerable young people, say some observers.

Disposable income

Martin Hoey, chairman of the Finglas-Cabra Drug and Alcohol Task Force, says services "do their best to deviate young people away from crime", but says there are not enough and "there isn't a lot out there for adolescents".

Families don’t have disposable income to encourage hobbies or provide alternative entertainment. He points to there being just two youth services in the entire suburb “which do great work” but there is no arts centre, no cinema, no swimming pool or bowling alley. The Erin’s Isle GAA club and several football clubs provide outlets for sporty young people.

“So Covid made things very easy for the gangs.” They target vulnerable families to recruit children. They provide not only “easy money” but a sense of purpose and belonging many children crave, he says.

“A lot of the kids get involved because their parents may have a drug problem and a debt with the dealer. The dealer will tell them if their children do a few runs for them they’ll wipe off some of their debt. Unfortunately, because the parent can’t pay the debt they’ll send the kids out and then the kids are drawn in too.

"The biggest challenge is resources. If you look at other areas that have had major problems, like the northeast inner city, Limerick, the Government has thrown a lot of money into those areas. It doesn't get rid of the problems but it puts a dent in them. There has always been gang problems in Finglas but we never got the resources those areas did. We have never seen anything substantial."

Roche would like to see a "high-level" strategy for Finglas, again similar to those for areas mentioned by Hoey.

“Why are there not more resources and strategic thinking from the Departments of Health, Justice, Education, Housing around areas like Finglas?” she asks. “The issues facing this community are around being underserviced. There is no primary healthcare centre in the area, for instance, for a population of over 30,000.

“What happens is it’s left to community organisations, who just haven’t the resources or high-level capacity to respond adequately.”

Even with a huge investment, however, many are unconvinced that those young people already drawn to the “gang lifestyle” can be easily persuaded away. Hoey says many are so “traumatised” and “alienated” they are “extremely hard to reach”.

“Even when you put in the services not all young people will interact with them.”

Services

Rachel Kelly, project leader of the Finglas Youth Resource Centre, agrees, saying a specialised intervention team, similar to the Targeted Responses at Youth (TRY) which has achieved successes in Dublin's south inner city, would be an invaluable addition in Finglas.

Covid forced many services to innovate, including working online and to engage in more outreach approaches, which saw them reach young people they did not before.

Crucial, however, and one which all who spoke to The Irish Times stressed, is to recognise how trauma is central to the experience of life of most vulnerable families and children.

“That ripples out into the community,” says Roche. “A shooting is not a normal event – it shouldn’t be. But when that becomes normalised that is when a whole community has become traumatised.”