Pat Leahy: Chipping away at inner-city neglect

Social ills have blighted areas of the capital. But inspired efforts bring glimmers of hope

A short stroll from the Leinster House and Government Buildings is one of the country’s most deprived areas, where crime, anti-social behaviour and poverty have become a way of life for decades.

Mutually reinforcing lawlessness, social breakdown and official neglect over generations have made the northeast inner city of Dublin a byword for urban decay and all the social ills – unemployment, drug addiction, lack of education, shortened life expectancy, poor mental and physical health – that go with it. And in 2015 and 2016, the area became the epicentre of a lethal feud between two crime gangs.

But those murders triggered a Government response that has begun to change things. There is still a long, long way to go. This remains an area with deep social and economic problems. But it has perhaps begun to turn the corner and there is something to be learned from what’s happening there.

It started with Enda Kenny. One day in April 2016 he stuck his head into an aide’s office. “Will you come down with me to this funeral?” he asked.

The funeral was of Martin O’Rourke, a 24-year-old man who had been shot dead by mistake during the feud. The tragic scenes had a profound effect on Kenny, who continues to visit the area. He asked Kieran Mulvey, the State’s premier industrial relations fixer, to report on the issues facing the area.

Once Mulvey reported, an implementation board was set up to drive the project, and Michael Stone, who runs a large construction and engineering group, was asked to head it up. Stone is what they used to call a no-nonsense Dub. He is urgent and direct, energetic and unsentimental.

It is how this board works that makes the difference. It’s unlike anything I have seen in the public sector before.

“We make decisions very quickly,” says Stone. “We encourage people to try things.”

Gardaí on bikes

If it doesn’t work, that’s fine. But they won’t fund it again. “We won’t keep pumping in good money after bad.”

Yes, there is plenty of money available. It helps when Minister for Finance Paschal Dohonoe is a local TD. But it’s not just money. Money had been spent before. It is the way money is spent, on targeted initiatives which often emanate from the community, and the constant measuring of its outputs that is different. And the fact that the board can intervene with individual State agencies – the Health Service Executive, Dublin City Council, Dublin Bus, individual schools, even the Garda – seems to be achieving results.

It is the way money is spent on targeted initiatives which often emanate from the community that is different

For example, last year, the board told the gardaí there wasn’t enough of a presence on the street. The armed response unit, a constant presence during the worst days of the feud, was not needed so much now. Patrols were one thing, but people like to see gardaí on the street.

Young lads were selling drugs on bikes. “The gardaí said, ‘Oh, but we need bikes.’ We said, right, we’ll get you the bikes. So we got the bikes,” says Stone.

The swimming pool wasn’t open at weekends, on Mondays or in the evenings. So they paid Swim Ireland to supervise the extended opening hours.

They wanted Dublin Bus to provide a local route, but were getting nowhere. Feeling the political pressure, the company offered to contract out a new service. The board said, no, we want a bus with Dublin Bus livery, so that the people can see that that the agencies of the State are interested in them. Someone was hauled in for a meeting at Government Buildings. Now the 53A route serves Talbot Street and Sheriff Street Upper, through Summerhill to East Wall Road.

A key factor is the direct involvement of Martin Fraser, the country’s top civil servant. Fraser knows the area well; he walks home through it during the summer.

Human investment

“Every two months I go in to see Martin and the oversight group,” Stone tells me. “He has all the secretary generals and assistant secretaries in. I go to him and say, right, I’ve an issue here, and he will say, ‘You and you, get your heads together, come back to me and get that sorted.’ And I can tell you now, Fraser’s not one to be crossed.”

The heart of the area is a vibrant, resilient community. But it lives alongside deep dysfunction and multigenerational poverty

The investment in physical infrastructure in the area is obvious, even if it sits alongside years of neglect. Investment in human capital is less measurable, less obvious, more long-term. And with much less certain results. The heart of the area is a vibrant, resilient community. But it lives alongside deep dysfunction, multigenerational poverty and all the related problems piled on kids who have nothing like the opportunities available to their counterparts living a few miles away. Too many parents don’t read to their kids, so they send volunteers to do it. They run technology programmes in schools, organise work placements, try anything to get the kids to stay in school. Schools are at the heart of it.

Everyone talks about Michael Darragh McAuley, the Dublin footballer and teacher who now works for the implementation board.

McAuley breezes in to talk about role models. “I didn’t realise about role models. But when I came down here, I realised – my da was a role model, just by having a job, my brother was a role model by going to college.” A lot of the kids in the area here don’t have that, he says.

McAuley has just won five All-Irelands in a row, but here he’s as much the guy who runs “Gah for mahs”, an initiative to get women involved in sports. Last year the Sherriff Street team played the Ballybough team – in Croke Park at halftime at the ladies football semi-final.

“Chip, chip, chip,” says Stone. He and his team are chipping away at a huge edifice of poverty, inequality and despair. They seem to me to making progress. Policymakers should take note.