WHEN LAST YEAR'S crime figures were released, one of the stand-out statistics was the doubling in stabbing killings, from 18 in 2006 to 36 last year, writes Conor Lally, Crime Correspondent

The then minister for justice, Brian Lenihan, moved quickly to give the impression he had a plan to respond to the problem, saying a publicity campaign aimed at young people would be rolled out.

"We have got to get the message across that carrying knives not only carries heavy penalties but can lead to disastrous consequences," he said. The awareness campaign has not yet commenced.

Tackling Ireland's emerging knife culture by targeting young people presupposes it is young people who are at the centre of the problem. While more and more teenagers are carrying and using knives, sometimes with fatal consequences, most attacks involve adults and take place in the home or after excessive consumption of alcohol and drugs. This makes the problem much more complex and difficult to address.

And while the figures for fatal knife attacks last year were alarming, the frequency of such attacks so far this year has fallen back, to nine stabbing deaths.

But fatal attacks account for only a small portion of knife crime. More comprehensive data for non-fatal incidents reveals Ireland's knife culture is no worse now than at any time since 2003.

For example, in 2003 there were 1,088 homicide, assault and robbery crimes involving knives. In the following three years, that figure peaked at 1,232 in 2006 before falling back to 1,032 last year. In the first six months of this year, there were 647 incidents where knives were a factor in a crime.

The figures, which were supplied by the Central Statistics Office, do not include cases where people were investigated for possessing a knife as an offensive weapon.

The only category of knife crime that has increased significantly since 2003 is murder. The number of stabbing murders has increased every year from just four cases in 2003 to 36 last year.

Senior gardaí who spoke to The Irish Times believe more young people than ever are carrying knives or sharpened weapons. They point to the cases of two Polish men stabbed to death in Drimnagh in February, and Dubliner David Rooney, who was stabbed to death in Crumlin in July, as proof that the teenagers involved were either carrying weapons or had them hidden very close to where the random attacks occurred.

Dr Ian O'Donnell, the head of UCD's Institute of Criminology, says a more detailed breakdown of knife-crime statistics is needed to gauge the true extent of Ireland's knife culture. It is only when hot spots are identified that targeted policing and awareness-raising campaigns will be effective.

He believes a very large number of stabbing attacks take place in the home or after drinking sessions, and are carried out by people who did not set out to stab their victims.

"An initiative or awareness campaign on domestic violence might be just as useful as one targeted at young people carrying knives," he says.

A greater number of young people are now carrying knives, mostly because of fear of being attacked or because it has been normalised for them.

"Most of them don't realise that if you carry a knife you're more likely to be stabbed yourself," he says.

However, he adds that while there have been some shocking stabbing cases here involving teenagers, Ireland is still some way off the teenage gang problem in the US and the UK that has in large part created the knife culture in those countries.

"These gangs can be very formally organised on geographical or racial lines, with initiation rituals and so on. And it's when these gangs clash that you see the potential for a serious knife culture and serious violence. But it would be fair to say that we haven't seen those gangs here yet."