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Q&A: How can we stop open drug dealing on Dublin’s streets?

Open dealing in the city centre has hit the headlines in recent days


With city-centre business owners warning that criminals selling drugs are making our capital a much more menacing place, many are asking what can be done to clean up our streets?

So why has a Dublin business owner felt obliged to publicly complain about open drug dealing in the city centre?

Because according to Stephen Kennedy from Copper + Straw coffee shop on Aston Quay, it’s now at a truly frightening level. He opened this outlet last October in what should be a prime location, less than 100m from O’Connell Bridge.

Around 20 to 30 times every day, however, he and his staff see people outside the shop wearing hoodies with scarves pulled up over their faces while dealing crack cocaine.

“I am speaking out in an act of desperation,” he told Newstalk radio last Monday, “because I’m at a loss as to what to do about it. It’s bad for the tourists who get off the bus and walk into my shop, it’s bad for the hard-working people of Dublin who want to enjoy their city – and it’s bad for business.”​

How has open drug dealing changed Dublin’s character?

Basically, it’s made our capital feel like a much more menacing place. Wander around Dublin city centre with your eyes peeled and before long you will spot deals happening – often a hug between buyer and seller is the giveaway sign.

Look down laneways and you might find discarded syringes or crack pipes beside pools of blood. For people who work in this area, the knock-on effects include brazen shoplifting, verbal abuse and physical assaults.

“Whatever we’re doing now is not working,” Paul Gallagher, the co-owner of shops on O’Connell Street and Henry Street, told RTÉ radio last Tuesday. “(Drug dealers) have zero fear of being apprehended. If we’re not careful, there’s going to be no-go zones in this city.”​

Dublin city at night

Drug dealing is not just a city centre issue either, is it?

No. While the concentration of methadone clinics in central Dublin has an obvious knock-on effect, dealing can be seen in disadvantaged communities all over the city.

Last September, for example, a meeting of the South Dublin County Joint Policing Committee identified Fettercairn, Killinarden and Jobstown as places where drugs are routinely being sold in broad daylight.

Last year, an undercover investigation for RTÉ’s Prime Time filmed 42 crack deals over a four-hour period near a senior citizen housing complex in Ballymun, with schoolchildren regularly passing by.

“There’s a sense of lawlessness,” Grace Hill, coordinator of the Tallaght Drug and Alcohol Task Force, recently told local newspaper The Echo. “Morale is low among our community representatives and they’re saying they need to see more guards on the beat.”​

So is the fundamental problem a lack of gardaí?

In fairness to An Garda Síochána, it has acknowledged that special measures are needed. Just over a year ago it launched Operation Citizen, which officially involves 100 gardaí patrolling dealer hang-outs such as the Liffey Boardwalk.

Unfortunately, city centre business owners say Operation Citizen is not making a major difference on the ground. They report phones in garda stations going unanswered and officers taking an hour or more to arrive at incidents.

“It is a fact that there are no more than approximately 20 gardaí assigned [to Operation Citizen] on a daily basis,” the recently retired inspector Tony Gallagher told last October, “and I speak on the side of generosity in this assessment.”​

What about the Government’s response?

Last month, Justice Minister Helen McEntee announced Dublin will soon get a special garda task force to deal with “street crime”. She has also pledged that a new garda station will be opened on O’Connell Street early next year, at the old Citizens Information Office near the Savoy cinema.

Opposition politicians, however, claim this is just window dressing to cover up a basic lack of garda numbers. Thanks to the last economic crash, Dublin actually has 757 fewer gardaí than it did in 2009. That’s a drop of 17.8pc, while our population has grown by 15.5pc over the same period.

Even more worryingly, the job itself is becoming less attractive. This year the Government provided An Garda Síochána with enough funds to hire an extra 800 members (next year it will be 1,000), but only 90 have actually been recruited.

Recent episodes such as two gardaí being kicked and beaten outside a pub in Ballyfermot make it easy to understand why.​

Don’t non-policing measures have to be part of the solution too?

Many anti-drug campaigners certainly think so. One idea that’s often been suggested is a supervised injecting facility in Dublin city centre. A law to approve this was passed in 2017, but the proposed site on Merchant’s Quay has struggled to get planning permission. It’s currently being considered by An Bord Pleanála for a second time.

According to Dublin MEP Ciarán Cuffe, meanwhile, one of the city centre’s biggest problems is that not enough people live there. Last week the Green Party representative called for extra residential buildings as part of O’Connell Street and Moore Street’s planned redevelopment.

“A few more lights in the windows… in the evening would make people feel safe [and] help the guards,” he said. “We need more eyes on the street[s].”​

What about the radical step of decriminalising drug users?

While that’s not on this Government’s agenda, there is at least some political support for it within the coalition. Last week Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said he would favour moving toward the model used by Portugal, where drugs for personal use have been decriminalised since 2001.

Dublin North-West Fianna Fáil TD Paul McAuliffe has also said it’s time to examine anything that dismantles the drug crime industry.

“If there ever was a war against drugs, we’ve lost it,” he told Dáil Éireann last month. “I can walk out of this House and purchase drugs on any street corner… people tell me there are parts of their estate where the shop, as they call it, is open all hours of the day and night. In my community, the drugs industry is probably one of the single largest employers.”​

Finally, isn’t the grim reality that taking drug dealers off street corners will only move them on to somewhere else?

As long as demand and supply remain high, yes. Gardaí estimate there are up to 100 ‘crack houses’ across Dublin, where gangs have taken over vulnerable people’s homes and turned them into drug outlets.

Marketing tactics such as texting addicts with ‘special offers’ and shoving ‘free samples’ through letter boxes are also becoming increasingly common. All this means that the Citizens’ Assembly on Drug Use due to be held in 2023 will have a daunting task.

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