Violence in Dublin: ‘There’s an edge to the city. You feel it walking around’

Crime & Law
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Many believe there has been an increase in assaults in the capital – and some think there are fewer gardaí on the streets

In September last year, a group of writers, academics and journalists gathered in New York for the weekly meet-up of the Coffee House Club, a social club where, according to its website, “members are expected to talk about their individual pursuits and interests”.

That week it was Mary’s turn. She was living in Dublin, but had planned to give a walking tour, via Zoom, of Georgian Dublin to the American audience.

Mary’s husband walked beside her holding an umbrella to shelter her from the rain as she used her mobile phone to show her audience the homes of the luminaries who had lived in the area through the years.

I never thought this would happen in Dublin. I kind of thought I had left a dangerous place for a much, much safer place so it was a real, real shock

At around 11pm, Mary, who asked that her real name not be printed, had just finished showing the childhood home of Oscar Wilde and was walking over to Sweny's Pharmacy on Lincoln Place in Dublin 2 (near Merrion Square), where she planned to conclude the tour.

She was in the middle of talking about how Leopold Bloom bought lemon soap for his wife in the chemist in James Joyce's Ulysses when a man wearing a black face mask approached them brandishing a large kitchen knife.

“It was like the type you would use to carve up meat,” Mary said. “He says ‘I want some action, give me your wallets or I’ll stab you.’ I just thought, ‘Oh, my god, we’re going to end up stabbed to death outside of Sweny’s chemist.’”

Mary’s New York audience watched the whole episode. Some shouted at her to run. One man, who had yet to realise what was going on, complained that Mary hadn’t answered his question, “When was the height of the Georgian Regency period?”

Mary's husband reacted by pointing the umbrella at their assailant, and saying, "No, I'm going to stab you." This took the mugger by surprise and gave the couple a chance to flee. They ran up towards Leinster House hoping to encounter a Garda or security guard. "But there was not a soul, not a guard, no one."

Eventually, they were able to flag down a taxi and get away.

Mary is from New York and has been mugged “many times”, she says. “But I never thought this would happen in Dublin. I kind of thought I had left a dangerous place for a much, much safer place so it was a real, real shock.”

Dublin city centre is becoming an increasingly dangerous place in which to circulate

Since then, her relationship with the city has been fundamentally changed. “I certainly have not gone out walking like that in the evening since. I’m now much, much more cautious. I stick to the main streets. I don’t take any chances and I look to see who’s in front of me and who’s behind me.”

For Kevin Byrne, who heads the South Georgian Core Residents Association committee, the incident is a prime example of worsening public safety in the centre of Dublin and an increasing sense of unease among residents, workers, shoppers and tourists.

"That's the type of thing that would never have happened before in the city centre. That's the type of escalation we're talking about," said Byrne, speaking on the corner of Suffolk Street by the Molly Malone statute on another rainy Friday night. "And unfortunately, we just don't feel we see a police response that's discouraging that," he added, pointing out that we had not seen a single garda during the last half-hour.

This feeling of unease has been expressed by others who spoke to The Irish Times, including homeless people, members of the LGBT community and business owners. "There is an edge to the city. You can feel it when you are walking around," said Adrian Cummins, head of the Restaurants Association of Ireland.

"Unfortunately, this is becoming a fact of life and Dublin city centre is becoming an increasingly dangerous place in which to circulate, particularly in the early hours," Judge Melanie Greally said in February as she sentenced a man for an unprovoked attack on two Brazilian nationals near Capel Street. It is a trend which has been noticed by the Garda and the Government, although neither seem quite sure what is behind it.

Chief Supt Michael McElgunn, who oversees policing in south Dublin city, is keen to stress that most areas of street crime are down when compared to pre-pandemic figures. “Public order, drunkenness, theft from the person are all down,” he notes as he sits in his office in the newly-built Kevin Street Garda station, scanning the latest crime statistics.

But assaults have increased when compared with the first four months of 2019. McElgunn says they’re up about 11 per cent in the south of the city, adding that the statistics are provisional. “So, you know, it’s a relatively modest increase, but it does go against the overall trend.”

His counterpart for the north inner city, Chief Supt Patrick McMenamin, said the trends are roughly the same in his area. He suggests one reason for the increase is that in 2019, gardaí were still dealing with the tail-end of the Hutch-Kinahan feud which terrorised the area. The withdrawal of some gardaí after the end of the feud may have caused certain categories of street crime to tick up.

McElgunn says gardaí are seeing an increase in assaults at nighttime and on the weekend. “Some of the locations wouldn’t be of any surprise,” he says. “They’d be in proximity to the nighttime economy.”

The northside has less of a nighttime economy, McMenamin says, and mainly sees assaults relating to the “overflow” of people coming from the southside. “Our assaults probably would be predominantly around the boardwalk area.”

While the rise in assaults since 2019 has been relatively modest, the increase compared to last year is more dramatic. According to figures provided to the Dublin City Joint Policing Committee, in the first two months of 2022 serious assaults the south of the city increased by 132 per cent compared to the first two months of 2021 (from 25 to 58). More minor assaults increased by 167 per cent (from 49 to 131). However, the country was in lockdown at the start of last year and the nighttime economy was virtually non-existent. As the chief superintendents point out, making comparisons with this period is of limited use.

Byrne worries that the statistics are not capturing the full picture. “Maybe it’s a case that they’re returning to a previous average. But it’s important to note that a lot of minor assaults and thefts aren’t reported, and certainly most cases of intimidation are not reported. It’s that low-level intimidation that’s really affecting people’s experiences and decisions.”

He says he encourages members of his residents’ group to report all incidents “because resources follow statistics”.

“But the practical reality is a lot of cases that are making people less likely to come into the city and socialise or shop are not cases that can be reported. I think if gardaí were on the beat themselves, they will see what we’re talking about and would more clearly understand that the stats aren’t telling the full story.”

One senior garda suggested much of the increased fear can be attributed to a recent series of high-profile assaults in the city which received a large amount of media attention. These include a young tourist from England who was left with serious brain injuries last month when he was allegedly struck in the head by another male on D'Olier Street (a man is before the courts on the matter).

On the same weekend, Evan Somers, a gay man, was badly beaten by a group of men on Dame Street in what gardaí believe was a homophobic attack. Some of the men are suspected of being involved in an attack on an Italian man on the same street earlier that night.

“Last night a stranger called me a f****t before beating the sh*t out of me. He left me with a fractured eye socket, two fractures in my ankle, a dislocation in my ankle & some other minor injuries,” Somers tweeted from his hospital bed.

The incident, along with the murder of two gay men in Sligo around the same time, have made many members of the LGBT community question how safe they are on the streets.

I'm not afraid, but my boyfriend is from Brazil and he's really scared of these gangs

“Whether things have actually gotten worse for gay people, it’s impossible to say,” says a gay man from Dublin who asked that his name not be used. “But there is a sense things have gotten worse. People are nervous and worried. Part of it might be due to increased press attention and part of it is a feeling that streets are less safe for everyone.”

David Delahunty, a gay man who lives in Kilmainham, says at night there is a "feeling of uneasiness with people" in the city centre. "I've always looked over my shoulder. But definitely in the last year or so the city has very much gone downhill in my mind."

Delahunty, who is 40, says there are "definitely more comments from groups. It's a lot of teenage boy behaviour, they'll make a comment and laugh. I'm not afraid, but my boyfriend is from Brazil and he's really scared of these gangs."

A lack of taxis in the city centre as a result of the rise in fuel prices has contributed to the sense of unease, he believes. “I remember being at Pride in Vicar Street in 2018 or 2019 and I just walked the 10 minutes home. I wouldn’t do that now.”

Ray McAdam, a Fine Gael councillor for the north inner city, says from talking to constituents he has noticed an increase in assaults, "particularly a lot of homophobic attacks on the gay community, certainly in the Dublin 7 area, compared to pre-pandemic."

Many of the people who spoke to The Irish Times said they had not themselves been attacked but have described “an edge” to the city which was not present before.

"It just felt threatening. Angry. Grim," says Patsey Murphy, describing a recent visit to the Abbey Theatre. "These observations come from an old middle-class woman in from the 'burbs but throughout the pandemic and now for sure there are new levels of desperation around Henry Street, Talbot Street, Abbey Street, the Quays," she said via email.

Others described more minor issues which contribute to a sense of unease. Grace O’Keeffe, who teaches in the city centre, spoke about the rubbish on the street, the buildings left to deteriorate “and a sense that there are no consequences for any actions. The city centre is dirty and that permeates into general thinking and attitude.”

Green Party councillor for the north inner city Janet Horner said she is not aware of an increase in assaults. "But I've certainly heard people say post-Covid, having not being in the city for a long time, that they do find it now more intimidating or a little bit more scary."

Richard Guiney, the CEO of Dublin Town, which represents Dublin city businesses, was one of the few people The Irish Times spoke to who said the problem had improved somewhat since last year. "But perception is an important consideration. And it is a fact that our perceptions of safety are nowhere near where they need to be. From a business perspective, that's not welcome news."

Chief Supt McElgunn conceded that, regardless of the statistics, people feel more afraid. “It certainly is a narrative there and the narrative in and of itself will lead to concerns. Our engagements with people certainly do indicate that there are some people who are expressing that concern to us, and we’re not deaf to that.”

According to another senior garda, at least part of it is down to the fact that many incidents are filmed on mobile phones and shared on social media, “which can make the problem seem worse that it perhaps is”.

The issue of groups of young people hanging around town and engaging in anti-social behaviour comes up repeatedly. The matter was raised in the Dáil in late April when Fianna Fáil TD Jim O'Callaghan spoke of gangs of youths prowling Dublin city at night looking for people to attack while believing they are "immune to apprehension".

My girlfriend took a few slaps to give me the time to get up on to my feet

The TD said these gangs are “misogynistic towards women, homophobic towards gay people” and in particular are seeking to target young men on their own.

Until very recently, Jimmy McNichol was a rough sleeper in Dublin. He recalls an incident where a group of teens “got me to the ground and kicked the sh*t out of me”.

“My girlfriend took a few slaps to give me the time to get up onto my feet,” he says as he shelters from the rain on Dawson Street. “They just did it because they could.”

Elizabeth Banks says her older brother, who is homeless, was recently attacked by a group of males with iron bars. "His phone and money were stolen. This was at 3am [in Dublin]. He was concussed and then managed to crawl up to James's [Hospital], where he was admitted. So yeah, I would certainly be more wary now if I were out late."

Groups of “young lads” are acting with impunity in the city centre, McNichol says. “They’ll be throwing eggs at the buses or out of the buses at people. They’d be in groups, just bullying people,” he added.

“The issue of gangs of young teenagers coming into the city just to cause trouble, that’s new,” says Byrne of the South Georgian Core Residents Association. He said his group would like to see gardaí intervene to break up these groups earlier in the evening, before any trouble starts. “We’d much rather see early intervention than late night triage after an assault has happened.”

One Dublin social worker, who asked not to be named, expressed concern that young people are being unfairly scapegoated for a “much broader, much more complex problem”.

However, she also said she is aware of many young people who disengaged from youth services that were forced to temporarily close during the pandemic. “With some young people, once you lose them it can be very hard to get them back.”

Chief Supt McMenamin said there is “maybe a very, very small element” of young people causing trouble. “But you have to bear in mind that young people took the brunt of the impact to their lifestyles during the pandemic.”

Again, it’s a matter of perception, he says. “Young people are gathering with their peers as young people do and sometimes because of the perception that’s out there, that may seem a threat to some other people. I can understand that.”

He said gardaí dealt with lots of young people gathering during the Covid restrictions. “And you know, they weren’t doing anything wrong. They were doing what young people do.”

Some young people “don’t stand a chance coming up”, McMenamin says. “Is the criminal justice system the only answer we can give those young people? I don’t think it is and I don’t think it serves them very well.”

McElgunn says gardaí “are not blind to the fact” that some people have experienced issues with groups of young people. “We have put operations in place to target specifically incidents where young people are congregating for the purposes of street fights. We had some of that around Creighton Street [in the Grand Canal Dock area], we had some of it up around Dublin 8.”

We surrendered the streets to drug dealers during the pandemic and they haven't been reclaimed

These operations were of “relatively short durations” and seemed to address the problem, he said.

Both officers stressed the need for the Garda to have a good relationship with young people. “That’s important because they’re citizens too. They have rights as citizens and we just can’t unilaterally prevent their movements in the city, ” says McElgunn.

Another issue which was repeatedly raised was open drug-taking and dealing, particularly heroin and crack cocaine, on city streets. “My perception is there has been a substantial increase in drug dealing and the availability of drugs. That always leads on to the potential for an increase in violence or anti-social behaviour,” says McAdam.

"We surrendered the streets to drug dealers during the pandemic and they haven't been reclaimed," says Byrne, noting recent reports he had received of people shooting up heroin in the open, including opposite the Department of Health.

The area around Merchants Quay, which houses drug treatment services, is a "very dangerous part of the city in terms of drug dealing," says Cummins of the Restaurants Association, who works nearby. "I wouldn't be advising anybody to go there, especially in the nighttime."

Byrne believes there has been an “over-concentration” of drug treatment services within the canals. “And that plays a factor that has to be recognised as well.” He says there needs to be a “pause” before locating more services in a city centre which also serves as the country’s main tourist and business district.

Byrne reflects one side in a debate which has been ongoing on for almost a decade regarding whether a facility should be opened on the quays to allow addicts to inject drugs in a supervised setting. The charity Merchant's Quay Ireland (MQI), which runs the existing drug treatment services in the area, have been seeking planning permission for the centre for the last five years. Permission was initially refused by Dublin City Council. That decision was overturned by An Bord Pleanála, which granted permission, and that decision was then itself overturned by the High Court. The matter is currently back with An Bord Pleanála, which is expected to rule next month.

MQI has said the injection centre will save lives and hopefully make the surrounding streets safer by offering addicts a sheltered location to inject drugs. About 100 objections have been lodged with the council against the facility, including from the nearby St Audoen's National School and various businesses and pubs.

We're dealing with pretty vulnerable people who have fairly chaotic lifestyles

Gardaí are conscious of the issue of open drug-dealing and injection, McElgunn says. “And then there are issues around a concentration of service users in the city centre, and there’s probably wider considerations needed in that context.”

But the problem cannot be dealt with through policing alone, gardaí believe. “We’re dealing with pretty vulnerable people who have fairly chaotic lifestyles,” McElgunn says. “You could pick those people up three or four times a day and they’ll be back there again tomorrow, I can assure you. So we need to think of a longer-term solution there.”

So what can the Garda do to make the city safer, or at least make it feel safer?

Part of its response is Operation Citizen, which launched in October 2021 and is aimed at, according to the Garda website, “reassuring the public, residents, visitors, businesses and workers that Dublin city centre is a positive, safe environment, notwithstanding the wide range of complex social and professional dynamics which are to be found in Dublin city, the same as any other large urban environment.”

McElgunn produces statistics showing there have been 616 “proactive patrols” conducted by gardaí in his area in the first 17 weeks of this year, up from 236 in the same period in 2021. There are also short, more targeted operations aimed at tackling hotspots of anti-social behaviour as they arise, he says. More gardaí are being moved into frontline policing roles and there are plans to open a new station on O’Connell Street.

For people like Byrne, it’s not enough. He says there is an urgent need for more uniformed foot patrols which “create a zone of good behaviour” around them. “We don’t want arrests or imprisonments. Want more proactive measures.”

There are limits on what the Garda can do, McElgunn says. “There are more resources out there . . . that does not mean we have a guard on every street corner, nor do we have the resources as an organisation under our structures to do that.”

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