Monday 27 June 2016

Suburban customers who fuel gang wars

We look away when gangland killings happen, thinking it's nothing to do with us. But middle-class coke and dope users have blood on their hands too.

Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30

Crossing the line: Suburban users are turning a blind eye to the criminal element behind drugs.
Crossing the line: Suburban users are turning a blind eye to the criminal element behind drugs.
A garda in Dublin in the days after the gangland feud stepped up a level.

They may be concerned about the provenance of their free-range chicken, or fret over the labour conditions in the Bangladeshi factory where their T-shirt was made, but most recreational drug users are unlikely to contemplate where the joint they got off their trusted friend came from.

Fewer still are likely to have thought about this month's escalation of gangland warfare and wondered if their own enjoyment of cannabis - or something stronger - has played its part in fuelling a terrifying vista where known criminals are shot dead in busy hotels in the middle of the day or where armed gardaí, with balaclavas concealing their identities, are having to patrol the streets.

Dublin independent councillor Mannix Flynn believes there is no doubt that so-called recreational drug users play their part in lining the pockets of gang overlords. "The middle classes play a huge part in all of this and without them, the gangs wouldn't be making nearly as much money as they are," he says. "Middle-class people don't want to admit there's a link, or even think about it, but there is and by deciding to smoke a joint or snort cocaine, they're aiding and abetting very dangerous criminals who have made themselves very wealthy while spreading nothing but misery around them."

Flynn has seen for himself the devastation caused by drugs and organised crime in his central Dublin constituency and he believes it is disingenuous for well-off suburban drug users to think their actions have no consequences. "It's the middle classes who can afford to buy cocaine by the ounce or hash by the slab. They are bigger drug consumers than the working class and always have been.

"When cocaine first surfaced in this country in the 1970s, it was middle-class people who were buying it and helping to make the drugs gangs back then very rich. Nothing has changed."

Flynn's words echo the comments of former President Mary McAleese a decade ago. "It is the people with good jobs," she noted at the time, "it is the people with a great social life and a fancy car out the door, who are probably out tonight or last night, who were doing cocaine, who think it is a really smart thing to do, who are smoking hash or using cannabis or who are using E tablets and think it is a perfectly acceptable part of their life.

"The level of culpability for all of this is much more broadly based than many people are prepared to face up to. The same people, by the way, who will give out about it and who are terrified at what is happening out there are going to have to accept a fair deal of responsibility up the line for what happens in the pyramid."

The former president was speaking at the height of the Celtic Tiger when Ireland's cocaine consumption went up by 800pc in 10 years, making us the third highest users in the EU. Now that the much trumpeted recovery is in full swing - according to Fine Gael, at least - there's anecdotal evidence that consumption among the middle classes has started to pick up. And the gang warfare appears to be heightened.

"There's no doubt that there's a connection between a buoyant economy and criminality when it comes to drugs," says University College Cork sociologist, Niamh Hourigan, the author of a ground-breaking study on Limerick's internecine gang culture. "That was certainly evident in Limerick during the Celtic Tiger years - the gangs were at their deadliest when there was more money floating around."

Hourigan says the middle class distanced itself from the events that made Limerick notorious and says it wasn't until a popular and highly esteemed member of their own class was killed (in a case of mistaken identity), that hard questions started to be asked. "The killing of Shane Geoghegan in 2008 made people question how the gangs had become so powerful and who the customers for the drugs were down the line. People in marginalised parts of Limerick would have certainly thought that the middle classes were feeding the demand."

Hourigan believes that an economic recovery in Dublin and some other urban centres will not have gone unnoticed by the gangs. "Talk to some of the security correspondents and they say that the gangs are responding to the recovery by investing more in recreational drugs."

A garda source says cannabis 'grow-houses' really took off in the austerity years and continue to be significant money-getters for gangs looking for a quick kill.

"The thing about cannabis is you'd have people using it who wouldn't dream of touching MDMA or cocaine," he says. "They almost don't see it as a drug. And because of the hippy connotations, they don't realise that there's a very serious criminal dimension to its supply.

"If they realised the money that could be made from it, they might think again. It's not unusual to find a grow-house in a bog-standard two-bedroom apartment - say 600 sq ft - and you've got 50 or 60 grand worth of cannabis growing there at any one time. Multiply that amount over several years and you can get a sense about how much money can be made."

Mannix Flynn believes that for some of Ireland's middle classes, there's a whiff of glamour about the country's dangerous underworld figures. "They've been glamorised in the media, given nicknames and been portrayed as celebrities."

The councillor believes hugely popular dramas like Love/Hate have played their part too, and notes that the central character, Nidge, is seen by some as something of a modern-day folk hero. "Love/Hate was utterly reckless," he says, "and only served to normalise the worst kind of criminal behaviour. The way they were facilitated to shoot in identifiable parts of Dublin, that have been scarred by decades of government inaction, was a disgrace too."

Flynn notes the disquiet in some quarters when sportswear manufacturer O'Neills launched a limited edition Dublin GAA jersey with the legend 'King Nidge' emblazoned on the back. "The O'Neills thing was seen as a bit of a laugh," he says, "but it was yet another example of these characters being normalised and celebrated. There's nothing normal about the way Dublin crime figures have behaved and the misery they've left behind.

"The real fear with the way very dangerous criminals are portrayed in the tabloids or on dramas like Love/Hate is that they will be seen as heroes for a new generation of working-class teens. Any young boy living in deprived circumstances might look up to these people as role models and there's a danger that they'll be sucked into such a life of crime and never be able to escape it."

Niamh Hourigan says such young people were targeted with State support during the boom years, but with funding slipping in the austerity era, they remain especially vulnerable for exploitation by criminal fraternities today. "People like Fr Peter McVerry have highlighted this issue," she says, "and it's something that really should be addressed." The key, she insists, is intervention before it's too late.

Meanwhile, Mannix Flynn has a simple message for those "normal, middle-class people" who will indulge in their recreational drug of choice this weekend: "I would ask someone who's going to do a line of coke or is planning to have friends over to listen to Jimi Hendrix while smoking a few spliffs to bear in mind that the choice they're about to make is playing its part in wrecking communities and creating fear and ensuring that certain criminals lead a life of unimaginable luxury.

"You might be someone who is concerned about Fair Trade but, believe me, there's no Fair Trade when it comes to drugs."

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