‘I’ve been threatened by a local drug lord, followed, filmed and abused on the street’

Residents in St Mary’s Park in Limerick growing more fearful as crack cocaine use rises

 St Mary’s Park in Limerick, where gangs use derelict houses to sell and store drugs. Photograph:  David Raleigh

St Mary’s Park in Limerick, where gangs use derelict houses to sell and store drugs. Photograph: David Raleigh

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Three weeks ago, as he walked through St Mary’s Park estate in Limerick, local Sinn Féin councillor John Costelloe was “followed, filmed and threatened” by a man he claims is a senior player in the drugs business.

“I was coming from city hall heading through Assumpta Park and he followed me, slowed down, rolled down his window, took his camera out and started to video me and roar certain expletives.

“I was a bit taken aback by it, but I think he was just flexing his muscles,” he says. The 57-year-old councillor says he is taking abuse for speaking out against drug dealers who are fuelling a “crack cocaine epidemic” on Shannonside.

The tension is palpable in the air there. We have drug addicts roaming around the streets at will, going to houses, purchasing their goods and leaving

Later, in a separate incident in Limerick city centre, Costelloe bumped into an acquaintance he didn’t identify, who offered him some advice: it may be in his best interests if he starts wearing “a bulletproof vest”.

“I’ve been threatened by a local drug lord, followed, filmed, photographed, and abused on the street by his runners,” he says. Residents in the small estate of about 300 houses known as “the island” are fearful, and “just want the drugs out of their community” says Costelloe.

“The tension is palpable in the air there. We have drug addicts roaming around the streets at will, going to houses, purchasing their goods and leaving in taxis, or on the bus, they’re walking out of the area freely,” he goes on.

The gardaí raid houses regularly in the estate, “but a few hours after they leave, it’s business as usual”.

While Costelloe insists he will “not be deterred” by the threats he has received, he has had to take precautions. He avoids holding his clinic for constituents in the estate whenever tensions flare up.

“There are certain houses you dare not pass, you have to be cognisant of residents in the area and not to be drawing attention to them by going to certain areas in St Mary’s Park,” he says.

Sinn Féin councillor John Costelloe says residents of St Mary’s Park in Limerick ‘just want the drugs out of their community’
Sinn Féin councillor John Costelloe says residents of St Mary’s Park in Limerick ‘just want the drugs out of their community’

Garda sources and drug workers agree that crack cocaine has reached frightening levels in Limerick and is creeping into surrounding regional towns. One of the city’s “crack” suppliers deals from a house in St Mary’s Park, known locally as the “drugs supermarket”.

Customers approach the property on a daily basis, travelling into the estate on the local bus service, taxis, their own personal transport, bicycles or on foot, says Costelloe, during a walk around the estate.

Over seven months, it has been raided by gardaí 15 times. Today the house has been fitted with reinforced internal doors in an effort to delay gardaí entering the house and to give those inside time to destroy evidence.

Despite being one of four disadvantaged estates targeted for regeneration 14 years ago, jobs are still scarce in St Mary’s Park

During the walk, two young people take shelter under a coat beneath a CCTV camera and start to smoke crack out of a plastic bottle. When they realise they are being watched they stop abruptly and shuffle off down along a riverbank.

St Mary’s Park is described in Pobail reports as being “the most deprived” place in the State. Despite being one of four disadvantaged estates targeted for regeneration 14 years ago, jobs are still scarce in St Mary’s Park.

For more than two decades the picturesque peninsula overlooked by the Clare hills has been scared by members of the Keane and Collopy drug gangs who control burnt-out and boarded-up houses to store their drugs.

Rows of the estate’s substandard local authority built houses are being refurbished under regeneration plans for locals, which was dubbed as one of the State’s “largest capital programmes and largest regeneration programme” in 2013.

Locals are often afraid to speak out when a member of their family becomes addicted to drugs. Soon, they are made responsible for the drug debt created. No one talks, says Costelloe: “The gangs weave a tangled web which is hard to break.”

At the moment there is no particular treatment for crack cocaine, it’s not like heroin where you can take methadone

Rachel O’Donoghue, service manager with Ana Liffey Drug Project Mid-West, says the crack cocaine crisis has now reached crisis levels in Limerick and is starting to emerge in towns such as Ennis, Thurles and Kilrush.

The problem has become so widespread in Limerick that she and her team hand out thousands of “sterile crack pipes” to clients so they do not share homemade pipes which pose further health risks, particularly during the pandemic.

“Last year we handed out 2,500 crack pipes in the midwest, the majority in Limerick city. So far this year, it has been busier each month so we are definitely seeing an increase in people using crack cocaine and requesting crack pipes.”

Sharing pipes, “tooters” such as rolled-up cash notes or plastic straws, can emit even more harmful toxins or “blood borne viruses”.

“It’s just as important as not sharing needles for injecting, especially with Covid-19 now, there is a high risk of transmission.”

Women are just as likely to become addicted to crack cocaine and heroin, and some addicts burn the substances together creating the “speedballing” cocktail that brings a heightened risk of overdose and death.

New clients addicted to crack have emerged during lockdown including “older people that used crack in London or America years ago and have started to use it again now that it is back on the scene”.

Previously, users might have purchased “powdered cocaine and cooked it up themselves at home with mixing agents” but now “there is more urgency” for it, so it is being bought as “rocks”, smoked or already mixed with heroin.

O’Donoghue says a female client had to be reminded by her drug dealer recently that she had purchased crack cocaine 19 times in a 48-hour period, when she came looking for more.

Life for addicts has become “more chaotic” during the pandemic, and it has become harder to engage with them, she warns.

Painting a grim picture of the future, she says: “At the moment there is no particular treatment for crack cocaine, it’s not like heroin where you can take methadone. There is no particular place people can go to detox from crack cocaine.

“Heroin hasn’t gone away, we haven’t seen a decrease because of crack use; it’s more that clients are using both together, I would say.”

I don’t think people realise the actual disaster that crack cocaine will be if it’s not tackled

Meanwhile, locals feel “abandoned” with high levels of unemployment still the norm.

Labour councillor Conor Sheehan says drug dealing in the estate is “rampant”. A community centre long sought by locals, which could be used to help divert youths away from criminality, he says, awaits approval.

Speaking at a special meeting to discuss the regeneration plan last Monday, Sheehan says a relative complained to him that they can no longer access a walkway off the estate “without side-stepping people taking drugs or who are very unwell having taken drugs”.

Local Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan, who has spoken often of the local crisis, says community addiction services have been “starved of funding and lives have been destroyed”.

Quinlivan says he recently brought a Limerick Regeneration official with him on a tour of the estate, to see the extent of the problem and they both witnessed people openly “shooting up” heroin in a burnt-out house.

Rachel O’Donoghue of the Ana Liffey Drug Project: ‘Last year we handed out 2,500 crack pipes in the midwest, the majority in Limerick city’
Rachel O’Donoghue of the Ana Liffey Drug Project: ‘Last year we handed out 2,500 crack pipes in the midwest, the majority in Limerick city’

“There’s one house selling drugs 24/7. I understand that there is a wall built just inside the internal wall and a second steel door, so when the Garda smash in the first door there is a second door to go through – there is a slot in that and you just put your hand in through it with your money and you tell them what you want: ‘browns’ or ‘yellows’ or ‘greens’, or whatever, they’re all coded differently.”

Quinlivan praises gardaí for regularly targeting the dealers but reiterates what Costelloe says: “Within hours it is back up and running and it’s very frustrating for the vast majority of the community.”

Last March Limerick’s Chief Supt Gerry Roche said he would deploy four community gardaí to the estate but Quinlivan says that locals tell him “they don’t see many gardaí at all”.

Quinlivan, who is a director on the Mid-West Regional Drug and Alcohol Forum, says “crack cocaine is off the scale” in Limerick.

He says the drug is “one of the most addictive and hardest to get off”, adding “the dealers in St Mary’s Park have targeted the most vulnerable people with crack cocaine and it has probably outstripped heroin levels in the city”.

He warns: “I don’t think people realise the actual disaster that crack cocaine will be if it’s not tackled. We are seeing the devastation of it across urban areas of America and it’s starting in our own city, unfortunately.

“There is a special place in hell for these gangs because they have deliberately targeted those who are the most vulnerable,” he adds.

Substance abuse affects the entire family and extended family and there isn’t enough services looking at that

A decade long drugs turf war between the late 1990s and mid-2000s saw up to 20 people murdered, shootings, petrol bombings and assaults.

The gangs have learned that shootings bring unwanted attention from gardaí and politicians, and have operated relatively peacefully over the past 14 years.

Last year was another record year for garda drug seizures nationally, which included €9.5 million of cocaine, €7.3 million of cannabis, and €5.7 million worth of heroin.

A meeting of Limerick’s joint policing committee last month heard that more than€2.5 million worth of drugs had been seized locally since the start of the year, representing a 16 per cent rise on 2020 seizures.

While most agree that regeneration has failed St Mary’s Park, there is praise for efforts made by Limerick City and County Council in recent months, where they have demolished 14 derelict properties that were being used by the gangs.

Operation Copog was set up to “target the sale and supply of drugs in St Mary’s Park” and is ongoing, a garda spokesman says.

In sweeping garda raids in 2020 and last month, Operation Coronation – targeting the Limerick gangs – seized hundreds of thousands of euro and drugs, expensive cars and jewellery, and the deeds of a property in Dubai.

There is respite for the families of those in addiction at the North Star Family Support Project on John Street. Director Joe Slattery, who runs a separate equine therapy for people impacted by addiction and other trauma, says: “We don’t work with the drug user themselves, we work with their loved ones because there is very little support for the families that are devastated by the shame, stigma, self-blame.

“Imagine seeing your son, or daughter, or aunt or uncle, begging on the street, or seeing their picture in the newspaper being called a ‘junkie’. Substance abuse affects the entire family and extended family and there isn’t enough services looking at that.

“We work on building boundaries, drug education, the ability to say ‘no’, the ability to prioritise their own self-care – because if they don’t get off the crisis train their loved one is on, nothing is ever going to change.”