| 13.5°C Dublin

the untold story of a community that got mad Colin Murphy on a new documentary that revisits the 1980s drug war

It is a time of recession, rising unemployment, a growing drugs problem, and Pat Kenny fronting a flagship RTE current affairs programme -- welcome to 1985.

The RTE show is Today Tonight and Kenny has oversize glasses, an immaculate parting and a very thin tie as he faces the camera.

"To their critics, they are a dangerous, Sinn Fein-controlled group, whose hallmarks are physical threats and intimidation.

"To their supporters, they are the heroic defenders of their communities against the scourge of the heroin dealer."

The "they" in question are the Concerned Parents Against Drugs, a city-wide movement of parents and activists in 1980s Dublin that took the law into their own hands in a bid to drive heroin pushers out of the flats.

When Today Tonight filmed them in 1985, many were so unhappy with the results that they refused to speak to the media for years afterwards.

Now, in a screening at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival tomorrow, Meeting Room, many of the protagonists tell their side of the story for the first time.

"Ask anyone over 30 what they remember about the Concerned Parents Against Drugs movement," says filmmaker Jim Davis, "they'll say 'vigilantes' and 'the Provos'.

"That never rang true to me."

For a middle-class Dubliner, Davis had had something of a bird's eye view of the movement, having attended Belvedere College secondary school, around the corner from the Hardwicke Street flats, during the 1980s.

He went on to become a film editor and director, moving to New York and then Berkeley in California, where he married and established a successful, if low profile, film career.

On a visit home he was browsing in a second-hand bookshop when he came across a 1985 book by Padraig Yeates, Smack, about drugs in 1980s Ireland.

It dealt in detail with the Concerned Parents movement, and Davis realised very little had been done on the movement since. The perception of it as a front for IRA activism in inner-city Dublin had squeezed out other aspects of the movement.

"I'd like to hear how these people themselves described it," thought Davis, "rather than how the media interprets it."

Davis and a colleague, Brian Gray, brought the idea for a documentary to Dublin City Television (DCTV) a co-operative-run community station that broadcasts to some 200,000 homes in Dublin, on the Chorus NTL network (see www.dctv.ie). With DCTV's backing, the filmmakers got €60,000 from the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. They hired a researcher, and went door to door in Dublin. Gradually, key individuals came on board, including the late Tony Gregory, who did an interview just three months before he died.

One of the leading figures was Fr Jim Smyth, a Jesuit from Kerry living in the Hardwicke Street flats. Smyth observed at first hand the rising epidemic of heroin use in the inner city, with drugs being sold openly from the flats. He was determined to do something about it.

But, "the message got around that it would be dangerous to interfere in the business that was going on," Smyth says. "The word shooting was mentioned."

There was no protection from the State, however. Tony Gregory had repeatedly raised the heroin-use issue in the Dail. A quarter-century later, he could still recite the standard reply he received by heart: "The level of heroin seizures remain low, according to the garda authorities, and therefore the problem is under control.

"They never stopped to think that maybe the level of seizures was low was because the gardai were incompetent," he said, "or because some very senior gardai saw this as just another social problem, and (thought that) as long as it was contained, nobody should really get too upset about it."

Jim Smyth brought the issue to Christy Burke, then a Sinn Fein councillor, who had served time for IRA membership, and Burke brought the issue to the local IRA leadership. Burke said that he would help the community stand up to the drug dealers, and asked the IRA, "If the heat came on them [the community], would they have the backing of the IRA?"

As he recalls in the film: "The blunt reply was 'yes'."

Gradually, the confidence of the Hardwicke Street residents spread to other areas, and what started as local activism became a citywide movement, calling itself Concerned Parents Against Drugs (CPAD).

Community meetings would demand that the families of drug pushers appear before them and agree to stop selling drugs, or to leave the flats. Those that refused would have their flats picketed.

"What do we want?" the crowd chanted. "Pushers out!" Eventually, the pusher and their family were evicted -- by force, if necessary.

"It was revolutionary justice," says author Padraig Yeates in the film. But though there was Sinn Fein involvement, and the tacit backing of the IRA, it was a community-led movement.

For filmmaker Brian Gray, this was symptomatic of a wider failure in the media."There's very little media out there representing working class communities and their social history in their own terms."

For Gray and Davis, the collaboration with DCTV was crucial: not only because it enabled them to secure funding, but because the station's ethos meshed with the values of the film and, critically, because many involved would have refused to talk to RTE.

It also allowed them to make a film that is very different from the typical, presenter-driven documentary style that dominates mainstream broadcasting, from Michael Moore to Montrose: there's no narrator and there is more room for reflection than the chase for ratings typically allows.

Gray was also keen to avoid the current affairs-style documentary that relies on a supposedly neutral voice to narrate the story.

With today's community development sector being undermined by funding cuts brought on by the recession, Meeting Room has acquired an added resonance. It may be an untold story, but it suddenly seems very current.

After Sunday's festival screening, Davis hopes to organise some community screenings and then tour to international film festivals. And ultimately, of course, "it'd be great to have it on the national broadcaster.

"That's the audience I care about most."

Irish Independent