Poverty and drugs: a recipe for murder in Dublin's fair city

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The Independent Online
While queuing for coffee in a Mary Street cafe near Dublin's O'Connell Street one evening, a colleague and I are distracted by a painfully skinny young man asking staff for a metal spoon. Refused, he runs out though the door with it anyway. People are seldom this desperate for a plastic one to stir their tea, but with a metal one you can heat a fix of heroin.

Fifty yards from my front door, a disused barracks building is taken over by teenage boys and girls for an hour or two at a time. Where once bottles of cider would have explained their visit, the reason now is less obvious, though syringes placed behind the ear while they scale the railings end speculation. With addicts apparently driven here by vigilante violence nearby, the red-brick building soon becomes a 24-hour heroin supermarket.

A few weeks ago the authorities were pressed into bricking over doors and windows and topping railings with razor wire. The business has moved elsewhere. In the last month demonstrations in Balbriggan and Bray, to the north and south of the capital respectively, have highlighted areas of worsening drug problems. Residents' marches, check-points and patrols have had an impact. This month witnessed public anger at drug-related crime around O'Connell Street, where young addicts now congregate.

Much of the offensive on "drug barons" that was promised after the killing of Veronica Guerin, crime correspondent of the Irish Sunday Independent, a year ago tomorrow, has targeted major known drug importers who supply an estimated 8,000 heroin addicts.

The main players behind the killing have been abroad since the shooting, which was carried out by a motorcycle pillion passenger as the journalist stopped her car at traffic lights. One suspect is in custody in Britain awaiting trial on serious charges. Others, main dealers and associates, are in Spain and the Netherlands.

The outpouring of public anger at the killing, and the impunity the killers apparently felt, marked a watershed. For years Government and police chiefs were too preoccupied with Northern Ireland to sense the enormity of the drug disaster on their own doorstep. The official response, in the absence of the main murder suspects, has targeted the proceeds of crime, with extensive property, including cars, boats and even racehorses, being seized by the new Criminal Assets Bureau.

With up to 80 cent of addicts known to be male and predominantly unemployed working class, recreation and employment initiatives are now cited as urgent anti-drugs priorities. But worrying policing gaps remain, including the lack of a witness protection programme, a measure of the alarming naivety of the authorities in dealing with organised crime in a city where intimidation of juries is assumed. The absence of fast-track promotion for graduates joining the police force, (starting pay for basic entrants: pounds 12,040 a year) discourages precisely the structured intelligence needed to combat sophisticated crime.