A Parallel Universe

As John O’Keeffe discovered on St. Patrick’s Day, there are two Dublin’s living side by side. In one, thousands are enjoying enjoying a wonderful day in the City Centre. In the other, a drug culture of biblical proportions rages in Dublin North Central.Wedged between these two worlds are the men and women of An Garda Síochána, providing a service to the capital beyond compare

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is a big parade to police. A very big one. To give it some perspective, the Notting Hill Carnival in London (in a city of some 9 million people) sees up to 2 million come to the streets. Here in Dublin, at only 1.1 million souls, and in a fraction of the space, up to 500,000 gather for St. Patrick’s Day. You do the maths – that’s the equivalent of a parade of over 4 million in London, in a dozen streets. Yikes.

The garda operation throughout last week was as impressive as you could imagine. On the Monday before the parade, a garda operational meeting was held to fine-tune the last details for the day. Nothing is left to chance – and I mean, nothing. From the helicopter unit and armed support back up, right down to the quality of the meshing at the main stand; no shamrock is left unturned. In Dublin North-Central, Chief Superintendent Sean Ward runs the operation like a man on a mission. Above him, Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy lends a knowing eye to it all. On the ground the men and women of the Frontline, listen attentively. Just because this event runs smoothly most years doesn’t mean 2018 will be equally kind. Alcohol and celebrations in Ireland are after all a mixed bag and St. Patrick has seen it all before.

Dublin doesn’t tend to experience good weather for the parade and this year was no exception. Monkeys, freezing and other objects come to mind as we gather once more in Store Street for the final debrief on Saturday morning. Once again everyone knows their part in the day. On the ground, Gda Ger Campion has it all covered. This guy was born to the job. Acting Superintendent Tim Burke, casts his eye over the morning with the look of a man who has been here before but takes nothing for granted. Well-oiled machine doesn’t quite cover it. This is Ferrari territory and everyone knows how to take a corner.

The canteen is buzzing with gardaí from public order, traffic units and Core Units, to name but three. I am waiting to meet my two companions for the day, plainclothes Garda Tom Powell and Sergeant Ciaran Whelan of the Drugs Unit. Powell has the look of Ireland front row Tadhg Furlong; Whelan, more Scottish actor Gerard Butler, but don’t be fooled. Both shake my hand like some other gardaí I’ve met – it feels like we are having an arm wrestle and its clear who is going to win. Today, I am going to see St. Patrick’s Day through their eyes. Today, I will see Dublin and its inner-city communities like I have never seen them. Today, I will see a city eviscerated by drugs.

We get only minutes to chitchat as we start up the car and move out of the station. A few streets away a known dealer has been spotted – at 8.30am. In the land of the dealer/user, even St. Patrick’s Day is a working day. Powell immediately jumps out of the car and gives chase while Whelan slams the car into reverse to meet them on the other side of the flats complex. We meet in the courtyard where Powell has the dealer already cuffed. He has thrown drugs on the garage roof – sheets of tablets. Other colleagues come to take him away and we are all soon back in the car. I am then advised that this man is also a suspect in at least one murder. My jaw has only for the first time on the day, hit the floor. Welcome to inner city Dublin. Welcome to the killing fields.

The day then takes on what I am advised is the usual shape for such a “quiet” day. As we move around, a man in a wheelchair is spotted and they chat to him. He is checked; nothing right now but he carries and supplies too. I am advised he has had his face cut up with a chainsaw recently. It doesn’t appear to be bothering him too much. Then again, when drugs are your life, nothing bothers you. Within minutes a younger male is riding his bike around the corner and is stopped by both men who pull the car in front of him. He is very anxious and nervous looking and becomes abusive. The two gardaí remain inexplicably courteous throughout. He appears to be on his way to collect some ‘gear.’ I notice he makes a gun sign to his head as the car moves away. Threats to lives are nothing new I am told.

It’s almost impossible to believe but within five minutes a man walking by a junction is spotted and stopped. He is carrying a large amount of cash and drugs; heroin wraps and tablets. He has to be coaxed to reveal the true amount of drugs he has on him but he appears unwilling, so only a search at the station will now work. He is bundled into the back of the car. Powell and Whelan talk to him with remarkable respect. These are their clients – their people. This man is lost in a wave of drugs and criminality; his family are all criminals and he will surely die in a sea of drugs. Yet 20 years ago, as a kid, he was probably at the very same St Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin. Tragic, doesn’t cover it.

And as we wind around the streets back to the station, the marching bands keep on marching and the majorettes keep on throwing their batons in the air. The streets, as ever, are packed with families and tourists and all is good-natured. I spot two gardaí laughing so hard with one tourist, I’m starting to believe the older male garda could do himself an injury. This won’t be covered by the press. There is no print space for being in and of the community as a garda and yet it is exactly moments like this which make our men and women of the Frontline one of the most trusted in Europe.

The drugs culture in the north inner city means there has to be an almost Ryanair turnaround on those arrested and so we are back out in the car within what seems like moments. We drive down a street where every second home is involved in the drugs industry – young and old. This is a street with no fear. Neither however do my garda escorts have any and approach a group of young men who give a new meaning to the word dysfunctional. Within minutes whole families are out on the street to try to intimidate. The Armed Support Unit come around the corner and they are roundly laughed at and verbally abused by the assembled group. I’m not sure they even noticed, so commonplace is it. Powell and Whelan hold their ground however and a shop and bins are searched. They’ve been here before – hundreds of times and they will be back again. These guys will face any drug dealer off but all they can do for now is to try to keep a lid on an explosion that has already occurred.

Twenty minutes later a 15- year-old boy who looks older than his years is stopped. He is wearing a €650 Canada-Goose puffer jacket, which I am told are beloved of such young criminals. He is a well-known dealer of a number of years. I have no words. We decide to drop the car back and walk around the city as the parade comes to a close.

Back out on the main streets I begin to see the world once more from where I have come. Laughing children, happy faces – a great day out. We take a snap with the Public Order Unit. These guys will start to get busy later on and it’s not an easy job. One minute, laughing and joking; the next a knife is pulled.

Temple Bar is already busy, but cordons have been put in place to ease the flow from previous years. We meet more Frontline gardaí who are dealing with everything from directions, early drunkenness to mobile phone snatching. I am not sure whom I know who could deal with this chaos, yet they do so not just with stoicism but also with good humour. As we turn down Custom House Quay the mood darkens somewhat as my garda escorts spot a notorious drug crime family enjoying a day out with their kids on one of the rides. All sides spot each other. This is Love/Hate territory yet still gardaí keep the pressure on them. The drug gangs and their foot soldiers may not be planning to go away anytime soon but nor are the gardaí – the criminals know that the Frontline are determined to try to make some order out of chaos.

But as the long day closes it becomes clear to me that gardaí, as currently resourced, are fighting a losing battle. Let no one be in any doubt. The drug ‘problem’ in north city Dublin is not a problem – it is an epidemic. Countless families and countless communities are part of this tragic play. The young man you see scurrying away on his bike is not just a user; he is a dealer and a significant one. Old women act as lookouts and criminal dysfunctionality is passed down through the generations.

Gardaí must be fully supported in paramilitary type environments such as these. Why are all garda cars not equipped with ANPR (Automatic Number Recognition Plates)? This would both improve and speed up arrests and convictions in a heartbeat. Why do Frontline gardaí still not have Tasers to protect themselves against the threats of knives and other weapons? Why does no one in authority think it is a good idea to have body cameras for gardaí? It’s good for police, good for the public and importantly, good for a listless criminal justice system. Why too are none of the 100 or so seized, high powered vehicles from the inner city, (now belonging to “no one”) not being made available to gardaí thus making for huge costs savings at the very least? Instead they are simply sent off for scrappage. Madness.

Meanwhile most Frontline gardaí in the inner city of Dublin are armed with a baton and pepper spray to deal with communities that have hardware that would not look out of place in Aleppo. The criminal justice system is the laughing stock of these feral individuals. There is no sanction. There is no bottom line. There are maximum sentences that are never adhered to but instead play into the hands of the liberal consensus for whom the problem belongs to someone else. Mitigation they cry and the system folds yet again.

The problem does not belong to someone else. It belongs to us all. Tragically, much of the capital’s north inner city is a drug addled, crumbling façade and yet the rest of the country simply turns its head away. Garda Powell and Sergeant Whelan are the metaphor for those who will not walk away. They are exemplary individuals. They and their colleagues ask for nothing but the resources to do their job in as safe a manner as possible, as they continue to wage daily war against an implacable enemy.

We owe them that much at least.


For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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