The activities of a number of youths puts the success of the Fatima renewal scheme at risk, writes Jim Cusack
CHILDREN from the Rialto area of Dublin, which was supposed to be the city's flagship urban regeneration scheme, are carrying knives and screwdrivers for fear of attack as part of a teenage drugs gang feud.
At the height of the property boom, just as the Herberton apartments complex on the site of the old Fatima Mansions flats was coming on to the market, The Irish Times property section used the term "competitive" to describe the €300,000 asking price for a two-bedroom apartment and €445,000 for a three-bed unit in the new complex.
The development consists of some 400 private apartments, 150 local authority houses and duplexes provided for the former tenants of the drugs and crime blighted Fatima Mansions and 70 "affordable" units for people who met the "social and affordable" purchaser criteria.
Opening the impressive community centre with its large hall, all-weather soccer pitch and playground in November 2009, President Mary McAleese told the 500 local people who had been rehoused in the housing adjoining the private apartment complex that their children had "the best place to grow up in Dublin".
She told the gathering: "When the wee ones grow up, won't people say, 'you're very lucky'?"
She went on: "They'll be able to say their mammies and daddies and grannies and grandads made them lucky – they wanted a change and, boy, did they get it."
The two local youths, aged 16 and 19, who were arrested and questioned about the murder of 22-year-old German student Thomas Heinrich two weeks ago may have been in the audience three years ago to hear President McAleese and her celebration of the regeneration of Fatima, a place that had been a by-word for urban dereliction and drug addiction.
Around the sleek new apartment complexes and top-class community facilities, a feud is under way among local teenagers who are fighting each other to climb the ladder of the drugs trade. Gardai have intelligence marking seven youths, aged around 16, who have already established themselves in the trade and who are now feuding with youths from the nearby Basin Street area. The feud is carrying over and affecting younger brothers, some just out of primary school. Some of these children, who mix at school with boys from Basin Street, are known to have carried knives and screwdrivers as protection from attack.
Drug-taking among youngsters is said to be rife and in one recent violent incident, the youths involved were found to have been drinking alcohol and snorting crushed prescription painkillers.
No one in the area says the redevelopment has been a failure. The former Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin, Fiachra O Ceallaigh, who lives in St Anthony's Road, adjacent to the former Fatima Mansions and to the new development says that, categorically, it has been a massive improvement.
When he and the former parish priest, Fr Dermot Farrell, began living and working in the area, Fatima's residents faced major challenges. Along with two volunteer Loreto nuns and local community and social workers, they began the campaign to have the old Fatima Mansions torn down and a better place to live provided for the community.
The plan decided on was the private-public partnership (PPP) with developers Maplewood and Elliot JV, who did achieve what is believed to be the finest example of any private, public and affordable residential development in the whole of the Celtic Tiger boom period. The all-weather pitch, playground and the impressively large community centre are among the finest in the country.
The "vision" for Fatima involved delivering "new standards in quality of public house and community facilities", "innovative actions" aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty on the estate and the fostering of "effective social integration and measures that promote and safeguard community participation in developing and sustaining the new Fatima".
President McAleese had endorsed the regeneration plan from as early as 1998, launching the 'Making Fatima a Better Place to Live' campaign.
Bishop O Ceallaigh, the son of President Sean T O'Kelly, recalled that during the Nineties, he would frequently see addicts "shooting up" in the grounds of the church behind his house.
There was the constant cleaning up of used needles at a time when there was the rampant spread of infectious diseases among intravenous users with no recourse to needle exchanges. Young joyriders were also a blight.
"When I first came here, you would be woken almost every night by cars doing wheelies. You don't have the racket at night any more. I can't remember when I was last woken. There was a lot of trouble around this area then," he said.
"Before the renewal, it was used as a drugs centre not just for local residents but for pushers from other parts of the city. The schoolchildren were suffering badly and the after-hours learning centre set up by the Loreto sisters did great work. Now there is the beautiful centre, the gym, pool and hall." The area, he said, has "benefited".
Several of the houses on St Anthony's Road were bought at huge prices in the boom in buy-to-let deals, with prices reaching €700,000 at one point. Four properties are recently understood to have been resold for as little as €70,000.
Asked about the drugs problem in the area, the former Auxiliary Bishop and Franciscan brother, said: "Some say it's better, some say it's not great."
A local resident, who did not want to be named, said: "The drug dealers are still here." He pointed to a passing man with the dazed eyes and parchment skin associated with prolonged heroin use and said he was one of the "gear", or heroin, dealers. But, he said, most of the local dealers were peddling cannabis and tablets, mainly ecstasy and its new variants.
A senior garda who has known the area for 20 years said that drug dealing was again flourishing because "nothing is being done" in policing terms.
He added: "There are young fellas, 16-year-olds, who are making good money. Rialto has a bad name again. When they get to 16, they see the older ones ahead of them who have made big money. They know that they have to be just as vicious or more vicious to get ahead. It gets worse and worse."
The local resident agreed with this sentiment, saying the local youths were waging a campaign of harassment and intimidation primarily aimed at the recently arrived immigrant population renting homes in the surrounding terraced streets.
A hint of local racism could be seen last week in graffiti opposite the Luas stop proclaiming 'Irish jobs for Irish workers' with a swastika-like sign spray-painted on the back wall of St James's Hospital.
"They've broken windows in every house in this street," he said.
During the Nineties, a District Drugs Unit (DDU) of eight gardai and a sergeant from the local Kevin Street Garda Station targeted Fatima Mansions' dealers and, by the time the redevelopment had begun, had driven most of persistent offenders out of the area. There are now understood to be only three gardai in the local DDU and, according to sources, they are overwhelmed.
Importantly, during the crackdown in the Nineties, the plain clothes DDU members were able to build up strong local support. Intelligence on the major dealers flowed into Kevin Street Station, leading to some of the biggest drugs seizures in Dublin. The local DDU was said to be outperforming the Garda National Drugs Unit in terms of major seizures.
Thomas Heinrich, the 22-year-old student from Frankfurt, and his friend Robert Rinker would have been totally unprepared for the potential dangers facing them when they rented their apartment in the sleek Herberton development in September to begin a three-month course in media management in nearby Griffith College. The block of apartments contains mainly foreign students.
The young men were enjoying themselves on the balcony of their first-floor apartment when words were exchanged with at least two local youths who had been trying to gatecrash what they took to be a party. Two youths, one suspected of attacking and inflicting serious injuries on two young American tourists with a broken bottle on the Liffey quays last April, left and returned shortly afterwards with knives. Thomas Heinrich was stabbed several times in the stomach and suffered a severed artery from which he died. Robert Rinker suffered a wound to the side of his head and wounds to his hands and arms.
Two youths, aged 16 and 19, were arrested later in the day. This was followed by the arrests last week of a woman and another youth, who were not questioned about the killing but about related matters. All were released while the Director of Public Prosecutions considers charges.