GARDAI were forced to mount an operation against men looking for prostitutes after schoolgirls waiting for lifts home were approached by men seeking to buy sex.
The Irish Independent has learned that gardai in Limerick received numerous complaints from parents after the girls, who are studying for their Leaving Certificate exams, were targeted by men.
The teenage girls had just finished supervised study at a private secondary school in Limerick city, and were propositioned by men as they waited for their parents to collect them. All the incidents took place near the city centre at 10pm or afterwards.
It is understood that the prospective customers believed that prostitutes and brothels were operating in some of the areas where the teens had congregated -- and were not aware that the girls were secondary school students.
As a result, garda officers set up several checkpoints and high visibility patrols on roads where the teenagers were propositioned. The aim was to deter motorists and customers of prostitutes from approaching the students, or attempting to solicit prostitutes.
This operation failed to prevent the incidents from reoccurring, and consequently gardai targeted those who attempted to solicit prostitutes in the city.
Undercover female officers acted as decoys, dressed in plain clothes and supported by colleagues nearby.
As a result, between November 11 and December 4, a total of 27 men were arrested for attempting to solicit or importune female garda officers for the purpose of prostitution.
The vast majority of the offences took place between 9pm and midnight in the Barrington Street, Catherine Street and Mallow Street areas of Limerick city.
Last week, 21 men pleaded guilty to the offence and were each ordered to pay €470 to Doras Luimni.
Chief Supt Dave Sheahan said 'Operation Freewheel' -- which is continuing in the city this Christmas -- began as a "multi-phased and graduated" operation to tackle prostitution.
He dismissed suggestions that some of 21 men who pleaded guilty were entrapped, and added that the operation was conducted "totally within the remit of the law".
Limerick has recorded the highest number of detections of prostitution and brothel keeping outside of the capital.
Aside from the large number of arrests in recent weeks, gardai targeted brothels and prostitutes working in the city earlier this year.
Earlier this year, two prostitutes were attacked and robbed at their places of business in separate incidents.
Two people have been charged in connection with the incidents and are currently before the courts.
In another investigation, two minors were found to be working as prostitutes in brothels and have since been placed into the care of the HSE.
Since the garda crackdown on prostitution in Limerick began, 126 people have been arrested and 87 people have been charged, with 42 convictions to date.