Vast majority favour tougher begging laws
Dublin's iconic Ha'penny Bridge has become a battleground of rival "indigents and beggars" scuffling for the best begging "pitches".
In recent months, the rivalry has intensified with different factions of Dubliners, eastern Europeans and occasionally Roma gypsies vying for market dominance.
With an estimated footfall of 30,000 pedestrians a day, Sean Kavanagh, who runs Ireland's Big Issue magazine, says begging is a growth industry.
"Begging is a bit of an industry and some do it as a career choice. A garda superintendent told me there was a group of lads getting €600 a day between them at Connolly Station."
Well-known Dublin busker Marie Ni Bheaglaoich says that working on the streets is becoming increasingly more intimidating -- as Roma beggars attempt to lay claim to particular plots around the city centre.
"There's a new edge to the begging now. It was always there before -- but not like this," says the concertina player, who has been working on Dublin's streets for the last 25 years or so.
Marie, who declined the life of a schoolteacher, is considering giving up her profession as a result.
"Since this gross intimidation began, I've had to consider doing something else. I don't know to what lengths they'll go to in order to get money. But somebody is sending them out -- and we're in the way."
Marie insists that the beggars are making far more money than the buskers, with people electing to give their money to those who appear to be homeless.
"I'd get about €200 a week but they're making a lot more than us. People are giving money to these fake charity cases instead of us who are out working," she said.
"There's a teenage boy who sits barefoot and shivering outside one Dart station every morning, raking in the cash while his minder is across the road. People buy him shoes all the time. But he doesn't want shoes, he wants to be thought of as really poor -- to get notes to give to his minder," insists Marie.
Fine Gael TD and spokesperson on social affairs Michael Ring insists the problem is getting out of hand and something needs to be done.
"They're organised, they're being dropped in every morning and collected in the evening and getting money off people who might not necessarily be able to afford to give it. It's wrong, it's racketeering at its worst and we need to sort it out," he said.
In 2007, the High Court struck out laws outlawing begging in public on the grounds that it interfered with the right to freedom of expression. Since then, gardai have been left powerless to deal with beggars. Figures for 2008 indicate that only 30 people were arrested on begging-related charges, and two convicted.
Legislation expected to be introduced before the New Year will see begging made an offence when accompanied by unacceptable behaviour such as harassment, obstruction or intimidation.
Begging itself will not be criminalised but gardai will have the power to move beggars away from ATMs, businesses and private homes. The offence will carry a maximum one-month prison sentence and fines of up to €400.
A Sunday Independent poll has found that 86 per cent of people want more restrictions.
Asked 'Should there be more restrictive laws on aggressive begging', 86 per cent said 'Yes' and 14 per cent replied 'No'.
There was a degree of sympathy expressed for those on the streets, but people's patience, especially for aggressive begging, was at an end.
"Beggars who approach people are an annoyance, and they can be intimidating especially for the elderly. People should never be frightened into giving charity," said one of the 500 respondents.