The Justice Cycle, by Eoin Ó Faogáin

 

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The capacity for Irish politicians, state agencies and Government departments to talk is unparalleled.

Our political elites, you see, are exquisite purveyors of relentless talking interspersed with loaded promises. Quiet reflection, or indeed tangible action appear to be absent from the job description.

Amongst all the talk, though, there are of course varying degrees of bullshit. A certain Department of Justice, Equality and (formerly) Law Reform must rank highly in the leaderboards of hollow, ineffective rhetoric.

I’ve spent a lifetime listening to transformative plans for the Inner-City of Dublin from a host of Justice Ministers. In the late-90s, John O’Donoghue adopted the tried-and-tested method of locking people up ad nauseam, which has always been a unanimous success at home and abroad and in no way devastated already impoverished communities. Of course, O’Donoghue had an honest and ultra-professional approach to tackling crime. That’s why the €850,000 worth of expenses swindling and taxpayer funded extravagance that later led to his resignation were just a massive misunderstanding. 

His successor, Michael McDowell, described gang murders as the “last sting of a dying wasp” in 2004, in support of a bizarre view that violent drug-fuelled crime was coming to an end. Within eighteen months of this carefully considered statement, 2006 was a record breaking year in Ireland for gun-related killings, including 5 murders within the space of a week in the December of that year.

Fast forward a decade and a colossal Celtic Tiger has come and gone without ever visiting the Inner-city. In contrast, the cruel beast of austerity was kind enough to stop by and decimate fragile youth and community services. In our time, working conditions have become more precarious, housing of even the poorest standard has become a luxury and progress in education has regressed significantly.

2016, meanwhile, became witness to an escalation in drug-related violence in the North Inner-city concentrated around a 100-day period where members and acquaintances of the Hutch family – many of them guilty only by virtue of their names – were systematically executed by the Kinahan Empire.

The response from current Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald was certainly immediate. Unfortunately, though, it failed once again to address the systemic issues around crime and inequality in this community. Armed Gardaí were deployed on every street corner, money was poured aggressively into additional resources.

With trust towards the Gardaí at remarkably low levels among young people here for generations, continuing with a heavy policing policy that patently hasn’t worked is short-sighted at best. This was a prime opportunity to place more emphasis on community policing, on proper engagement with the community the police theoretically serve. Instead the response was the Old Bill on steroids.

There are a multitude of factors in this broken relationship across several generations and they’re important to highlight. Everyone here has a story about being harassed, intimidated or leered at by members of the force. It may sound almost conspiracy-esque from the outside but it’s very real and has been sustained over the years.

Only a couple of months ago, a friend of mine was pulled over and arrested on Portland Row, in a car I was travelling in. When asked by an officer to pull over, he queried the command, on the basis that his tax and insurance was up-to-date and that he hadn’t committed any traffic offences. This led to him being accused of being uncooperative and saw him thrown into Store Street for a couple of hours. As I videoed the events, another officer tried to stop me by proclaiming that filming in public is illegal. It isn’t. As we continued to demand that they at least tell us the grounds of the arrest, they ignored us.

Incidents like this are relatively minor of course but they evoke unwelcome memories.

A decade ago, at 19 years-old, Terence Wheelock died in custody in Store Street. After blatantly interfering with evidence including his clothes, the Gardaí declared Terence’s death as suicide despite no evidence to suggest this was actually the case. His family, and many more people besides, believe that he was murdered in custody. They have campaigned relentlessly in the intervening years for justice and, as a consequence, had to leave their family home in Summerhill due to the severity of harassment they suffered on behalf of An Garda Siochana.

When Frances Fitzgerald, Enda Kenny or any of their predecessors have talked about getting tough on Inner-city crime they’re offering easily digestible sound bytes to Middle Ireland. Their failure, however, is in acknowledging the cultural context around the conditions that lead to high crime rates and in why communities here feel so disenfranchised with the Gardaí.

As Cllr. Éilis Ryan pointed out earlier this year, the entire budget allocated to community development in the Northeast Inner City is just a measly €650,000 – by comparison, Minister Fitzgerald outlined plans to invest €5,000,000 in a new armed policing unit in the aftermath of the most recent round of violence. The figure of €650,000 is a result of cuts of 38% in 2015 along with a cumulative total of 40% in cuts in expenditure in this area over the previous six years.

We’re investing a six-figure sum in bulking up a Force that has proven itself to be ineffective in dealing with Inner-city drugs and crime issues, while eroding the resources available to community schemes and projects which had the capacity to educate and engage the young people most at risk.

Dublin 1’s third level educational attainment rate is the 2nd lowest among the city’s 24 postcodes, at 23%. There are wonderful organisations trying to tackle this and make education more accessible – the Trinity Access Programme is a shining example – but these organisations cannot generate radical change alone. They require willingness and co-operation from Government. They require legislative foresight.

Education, at face value, is not an issue for a Justice Department. However, continued expenditure in traditional policing alone has a knock-on effect in this area. The fewer resources available to young people at school age, the more likely they are to fall into crime rather than pursue a career – and so the cycle is perpetuated.

It’s a point that’s applicable to so many aspects of our political decision making, but when will they learn? When will these endless years of failed strategies be critically evaluated and changed in accordance with the community’s needs?

It’s a rhetorical question of course. I’ll be writing a mirror image of this piece in twenty years’ time.

 

Eoin Ó Faogáin is a regular contributor to The Bogman’s Cannon

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