Beating inner city Dublin’s criminal stigma with positive role models
Poverty-fuelled drug-dealing and violence can stop being normalised by community effort
Dublin GAA player Michael Darragh Macauley: ‘It’s about a positive influence in kids’ lives and to highlight there are different paths you can go down.’ Photograph: John Ohle
Michael Darragh Macauley is no stranger to challenges, having won seven senior All-Ireland medals. But the 33 year old’s biggest battle may be in the district around Croke Park, rather than on the pitch.
For just over a year, the Dublin GAA footballer has worked in Dublin’s north inner city – one of the State’s most economically disadvantaged – in a bid to increase the number locally playing sports.
The Dublin North East Inner City (DNEIC) programme flowed from the Kieran Mulvey-led February 2017 regeneration report, which was set up after gangland violence exploded.
The Ballyboden St Enda’s player was seconded from his primary school teaching job to the DNEIC to get more people involved in sports, in an area where involvement is low.
Macauley, who is jokingly known locally by his initials, “MDMA”, is under no illusion that sports alone can turn local crime statistics around, but he is optimistic he can help.
Data published this week – “under reservation” as they cannot be described yet as definitive – by the Central Statistics Office indicate that the district struggles with a reputation as crime-ridden and unsafe.
The Dublin North Central Garda division has the smallest population of the State’s 28 Garda divisions, with just 83,200 people living inside its boundaries, but it recorded almost one in 10 of all crimes recorded last year.
It had a crime rate of 2,571 offences per 10,000 population, followed by Dublin’s south inner city, with 1,585 crimes per 10,000. It ranked highest for 11 of 14 major crimes, including homicide, drugs and sexual offences.
Though the figures are depressing, the Garda district includes O’Connell Street and other city-centre night-life areas like Capel Street, where post-drink public order offences are common.
Equally, many of the crimes committed there will not have been committed by people who live there. Nevertheless, Macauley says: “There is no doubt the area has its problems and its issues.
“But really I think the people here are pretty much the same as anywhere else. From being down here I have never had any issue or trouble. I’ve always felt safe.
“What has been striking for me is how much that I took for granted as a child growing up in Rathfarnham, is missing for a lot of the kids here. For me role models are huge.
“I always had them and probably didn’t appreciate them. Role models don’t have to be sports stars or champions. It’s about a positive influence in kids’ lives and to highlight that there are different paths you can go down,” he says.
Locals’ views about the numbers are mixed. Few express surprise, but most insist they feel safe. Even those who do not feel safe say they would not want to live anywhere else. The majority of people, the y say, are “lovely”.
Drugs and drug-dealing are the major issues. Nobody will report incidents to the gardaí. Firstly, none of them believe that anything will be done. Many would not feel safe if they did report.
For decades, the State in all of its machinery – the gardaí, politicians, the local authority – believed that Dublin’s north inner city is where crime could be “contained”, kept away from more important business and residential areas.
In Liberty House flats on Railway Street, a mother (31) of one said: “I’ve never seen crime around really. I kind of just go to work, come home and I don’t really notice. But I’ve lived here all my life, so maybe it’s just normal for me.”
A woman (29) with a new baby says: “I’m from Walkinstown and I’d almost feel safer here. There’s loads of people around and everyone looks out for each other. It’s very safe.”
A group of girls around Sean McDermott Street, who give their ages as between 12 and 14, say there is “a lot of crime” in the area, but seem accepting of it.
“Drug dealing, yeah, you see it a lot,” says a 14 year-old, “No, I wouldn’t feel unsafe, as long as you have nothing got to do with it.”?Her friend says,“Same, I’d feel safe because you know most of them.”
Asked if they would report to their parents or a teacher or gardaí, all say they would not. “No, because you know them. And they’re not that bad. They’re not bad people. It’s just what they do.”
“The crime is bad,” says a woman in her 60s. “it makes me feel I can’t let my grandkids out. I do feel scared myself, very scared. It’s intimidating. Report it? No, you can’t be seen to be talking to [the gardaí].
“You’d be seen by [the dealers] if a garda came to your door. It is like being in a prison at times.”
Asked if she would move, she says: “No, not now. I reared my family here and there are lovely people on this road.”
A man in his 50s says, “You don’t report anything around here” while describing the scenes of dealing outside his window as “Hell’s kitchen” and “disgusting”.
More gardaí on the street would help, if only to move the problem away from their front doors: Speaking for most, the woman in her 60s said: “The gardaí had a patrol car here, parked up there for about two weeks.”
That did make a difference. “The dealers were gone, but the police vanished again. They don’t really care. We’re all tarred with the one brush, all just scum to this government. That’s how I feel anyway,” she said.
These residents’ voices, says Johnny Connolly, criminologist and researcher into the impact of crime on communities, based at University of Limerick, illustrate the way crime stains the poorest communities.
In middle-class districts, people report crimes and expect things to be done. In poorer ones, the situation is different: “A lot of the response in these communities is negotiated within them.
“It’s hidden away. There can be fear of reprisal for reporting, or in certain communities which host drug markets there is a strong likelihood you will know the perpetrators personally.
“They may be members of your family. There is a strong community reason not to report. The most pernicious impact then can be that crime becomes normalised.
“With it, communities are often living with constant if varying degrees of fear, anxiety, stress and even hopelessness. Remember, too, that much of the crime is not actually counted,” he says.
Today, Connolly is searching for “systematic, reliable and confidential” information about communities’ experience of crime in the south inner city, Fatima and Blanchardstown in Dublin.
Proper information is “really important”, he says , to develop solutions “that go beyond the current criminal justice approach – which is not working by and large for these communities”.
The State must work with such communities, embracing restorative justice practices, helping them to solve their own issues, rather than with occasional interventions to disrupt the local drug market.
Poverty is the key driver, says the UL academic. The pickings from the drugs trades are attractive to marginalised young people with little hope.
Thirty-three years ago, the 1986 Urban Renewal Act promised to breathe new life into the district, pledging action to build new houses, museums, even art galleries.
The Custom House Docks Authority was put in change. It demolished more than 400 households in the Sherriff Street flats. Thousands left. However, it marked the beginning of “managed decline”, not regeneration, many argue.
Twenty-two years ago there was another attempt. The Dublin Dockland Development Authority orchestrated huge developments, but few of the pledges to locals followed.
This time, the agent of change is the Mulvey report now in the hands of the NEIC programme’s board. Locals are cynical, and believe that experience teaches them that they have a right to be so.
However, Michael Darragh Macauley, still fresh from the celebrations that followed in the wake of Dublin’s “five-in-a-row” All-Ireland success, is hopeful the dedication and hard work that brought that success can inspire others.
Nevertheless, he is realistic, too: “We can help catch the kids and promote all that’s positive. It’s not going to change everything about their lives, but it is important.”