Gangs use girls aged 8 to burn out feud rivals
Criminals recruit baby-faced gangsters, shock study finds
GIRLS as young as eight are being used to burn people out of their homes in gangland attacks, a ground-breaking new study has revealed.
Crime bosses in Limerick are using an army of juvenile foot soldiers to intimidate families who resist their control or are suspected of giving information to gardai.
And Ireland's growing band of baby-faced gangsters fear feuding families far more than gardai or the threat of prison, the research shows.
It also reveals that innocent bystanders -- such as murdered businessman Roy Collins and rugby player Shane Geoghegan -- are increasingly being caught up in the murderous cycle of violence that has engulfed the city.
The disturbing findings are contained in the first frontline sociological study of Limerick's infamous crime gangs.
University College Cork sociologist Dr Niamh Hourigan spent a year talking to hardened criminals caught up in murderous feuds, which have claimed 15 lives over the past nine years.
Her research shows marginalised boys and girls are being "groomed" by gangs to carry out violent drug-related crimes in Limerick estates.
"It is these children who operate as the agents of intimidation for family-based gangs," she told the Irish Independent.
"They engage in verbal abuse of neighbours, throwing stones, littering, breaking windows, spraying abusive graffiti and, in the worst cases, burning people out of their homes.
"During the course of my own research, the youngest child I encountered who was giving verbal abuse was three."
Dr Hourigan said the youngest child she came across who was involved in burning someone out of their home was a girl who was just eight. Defence Minister and local TD Willie O'Dea last night said he did not want to comment on the study until he had read its full contents.
Fine Gael justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan warned that it could take "generations for the consequences of gangland's grip on communities to be sorted".
However, Labour's Pat Rabbitte insisted that resolving the problem was down to "painstaking policing" and "sitting on the gangs until they are forced out of business".
Dr Hourigan praised the work of gardai in Limerick, who have managed to take more than 50 leading gang members off the streets.
But in many cases gardai are frustrated because they know who is responsible, but cannot persuade victims or witnesses to give evidence.
"The victims are often too terrified to make further complaint," Dr Hourigan said.
She welcomed Justice Minister Dermot Ahern's new bill to crackdown on gangland crime, but warned that imprisoning drugs criminals and family gang members would not finally resolve the problem.
Her study also concludes that the State's Witness Protection Programme is failing to tackle feud-related violence.
The research found that fear of feuding families was much greater than fear of the state.
Even if a witness decides to enter a protection programme, it is likely that another member of their own extended family network will be targeted.
Between 2005 and 2008, there was a significant number of random attacks on people that were not linked to their own behaviour, but to their position within an extended family network.
Gardai last night ack-nowledged that the age profile of gang members in the city had decreased dramatically in recent years.
"There have been a number of cases where children have been found with guns and carrying out the dirty work of these gangs. It is worrying," a senior garda source said.
In Limerick, the feuding families have in recent years recruited young boys and teenagers who are not biologically related to support their feuding activities. "These recruits act, not only as agents of intimidation by engaging in campaigns of stone-throwing and window-breaking, but they are also used to transport drugs and guns," the research finds.
Dr Hourigan's forthcoming book, 'Understanding Limerick: Social Exclusion and Change', deals with gangs and other problems in the city.