Let's reclaim our streets and make them safe for citizens and visitors alike
Published 23/07/2015 | 02:30
'What are you smiling at?" Snarling, a youth lunged with a broken bottle at a tourist who was waiting with his family for a sightseeing bus. The innocent bystander, less than two hours in Ireland, was left covered in blood from a head wound and was lucky he didn't lose an eye.
The random attack occurred on the zoo strip that's O'Connell Street in Dublin city centre last weekend, but such vicious, unprovoked assaults are not isolated incidents. They take place at any hour of the day or night. Often they are motiveless and mindless.
Citizens are fearful for their safety and possessions, and rightly so. But at least they are prepared, and on the lookout for trouble. As for tourists, unwarned and unwary they are lambs to the slaughter.
The fear is a one-way street. Unfortunately, delinquents have no dread of the judicial system. When the gardai make arrests, they know offenders will be walking back out through a revolving door in no time - even those with a charge sheet as long as the Liffey. Files are sent to the DPP and often that's the end of it.
A sinister merry-go-round has developed. But isn't it time the music stopped? For too long, sections of the city centre have been surrendered to anti-social behaviour. Let's not accept no-go areas any more. Let's not put up with violence, even at a low level. Let's not shrug off public order offences.
Instead, we should insist that our law-makers and law-enforcers set about reclaiming the streets from louts and returning them to the use of all citizens.
It will take money, but the price of doing nothing is more costly in the long run, both economically and socially - we cannot afford to ignore the belligerence. Tolerating it only leads to higher levels of aggression.
Dublin is a compact city and easy to patrol, provided the guards are allocated sufficient resources for a visible police presence. Officers on the beat act not only as a deterrent to lawbreakers but a comfort to citizens. There is a role here too for community policing.
Another possibility is a dedicated tourist police unit within the gardai - that's a proven strategy in other countries. Such a unit could liaise with hotels, airlines and tour operators. Apart from keeping down crime rates, it would convey the positive international message that Ireland appreciates tourists and is prepared to devote resources to safeguarding them.
Yet another improvement would be a visible security presence on public transport. Again, it acts as a warning against anti-social behaviour. It may be expensive, but it's essential at certain times. On Sunday evening, for example, a brawl erupted in a crowded DART carriage - it's a mercy no bystanders (especially children) were injured. The fracas resulted in interruptions to services for 40 minutes while the gardai were called. There were no arrests at the scene.
All of us who live or work in Dublin have been obliged to alter our behaviour to take account of the hooligans. Who ventures near the Liffey boardwalk other than tourists? I never answer my phone near the Four Courts or Heuston station because I don't want it snatched from my hand. Who hasn't witnessed one or more of the following in the city centre: open drug dealing, addicts shooting up, drunken brawling, aggressive begging, public urination, pools of vomit in the streets and needles and other drug apparatus left lying around?
These activities don't happen in the main thoroughfare and linking side streets of Paris, London, Rome, Berlin or Madrid, and they should not be tolerated in Dublin. Tackling the problem will require resources to be set aside, and joined-up policies involving politicians, the judiciary, gardai, the prison service, Dublin City Council and agencies dealing with addicts and the homeless. There is no easy fix. But progress must be made.
Meanwhile, addicts need help to detox. Everyone deserves a second, third, fourth and fifth chance. However many it takes. But I wonder whether methadone clinics are located in the best possible places? There are some 17 in the city centre, a number of them in the heart of the tourist trail. That's not just inviting trouble, it's presenting the capital in a seedy light. We're competing for tourist business with other destinations, after all.
Of course, the random violence blighting the city streets cannot be laid exclusively at the feet of addicts, convenient though that would be. Two German tourists believed they were going to be killed when they were set upon by a gang of teens in an unprovoked assault at 8pm on March 17. A barrage of punches and kicks were directed at them as they walked near Dublin's Liffey Street, with one member of them beaten unconscious. Happy St Patrick's Day.
A video of a Brazilian man who was kicked in the head on the same day in a separate incident went viral online. Two youths arrested in connection with that incident were released without charge, with files sent to the DPP.
Here's a question. Why are we prepared to endure a culture of street crime? It has a devastating effect on victims, as their impact statements show. Yet increasingly these cases are heard in the district courts, a signal that street crime doesn't greatly matter. Tell that to those on the receiving end.
Some 726 tourists had a memorable holiday for all the wrong reasons last year, according to figures from the Irish Tourist Assistance Service. Robbery was the main crime, but there were eight incidents of violence including aggravated thefts, assaults and robberies. Such incidents are not confined to Dublin, let's not forget the Canadian tourist partially blinded by flying glass in Birr, Co Offaly, in 2013.
Last December, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald announced a new working group to consider public safety in Dublin city centre. She made a number of excellent points, including a systemic approach to the problems, and the need for a frontline garda presence. Eight months on, segments of the city remain dangerous. Has enough happened to contain anti-social behaviour during the intervening period?
Voices are raised about vulnerable and high-risk members of society. No doubt some offenders have suffered deprivation. However, holidaymakers must be included in that vulnerable definition because they are being mugged.
Tourism matters, not least because it is a revenue generator. If we carry on the way we are going, a reliable performer in the economic sphere will be sacrificed.
We know what's needed. We know it won't come cheap. But letting Dublin go to the dogs is not an option. We must regain pride in our capital city.