Recent tragic deaths have highlighted a growing problem with knives. John Meagher reports on what can be done and how Scotland turned the tide on its ‘booze and blade’ culture
It was a killing that shocked even those immune to bad news. Urantsetseg Tserendorj was leaving her job as a cleaner in Dublin’s financial district on January 20 when she was attacked. The mother-of-two died of her injuries on Wednesday. A 14-year-old boy has been charged with serious assault.
Her death came less than a fortnight after a 16-year-old schoolboy — who cannot be named for legal reasons — was fatally stabbed in nearby East Wall.
Then, in roughly the same north-inner city area, a doctor in his 30s was treated in hospital last week after sustaining several stab wounds in an afternoon attack. Gardaí believe the assailant was attempting to steal his electronic scooter.
The harrowing effects of knife crime were also detailed in the Criminal Courts of Justice on Monday when a 28-year-old man was jailed for life for stabbing his 11-year-old nephew to death. The perpetrator cannot be named to protect the identity of the boy, despite the pleas of his mother for the law to be changed so that child victims can be properly remembered. The man inflicted 27 stab wounds on the child.
If knife attacks have been in the news with disturbing regularity in recent months, garda figures also show that knives are being used more frequently as weapons. Furthermore, many of those who carry blades are children and teenagers.
In the first half of last year, knife seizures increased by 13pc, despite lockdown. One in six knives were confiscated from children aged 12 to 17. The 2,145 knives seized by gardaí in 2019 — the most recent year for which figures are available — were up 33pc on 2017.
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris met Justice Minister Helen McEntee on Tuesday to outline strategies to combat urban crime and knife culture. Tweeting that the commissioner had put a “comprehensive policing plan in place in [Dublin’s] north inner city”, McEntee confirmed that knife crime had been on the agenda.
“We agreed that strong community engagement, increased community safety and youth services are a key element in preventing and reducing crime,” she tweeted. “We also discussed running outreach and information programmes in a number of different languages for all communities, as well as youth justice and other interventions.”
The Irish Daily Star reported that a special anti-knife crime unit has been established and that it would operate from Store Street Garda Station. In response to questions from Review, the garda press office said “We do not comment on material published by third parties. We can, however, confirm that, An Garda Síochána in the north inner city have initiated a policing operation in response to a number of recent incidents in the area. This will be led by gardaí at Store Street station”
The increase in knife attacks has caused considerable concern in north-inner city Dublin according to local councillors, inducing former Lord Mayor Nial Ring, who has called for more visible policing. But it is also a spectre that troubles community activists in other parts of the city.
Damien Farrell is concerned about significant anti-social behaviour in the Pimlico area of the Liberties where he lives. “A lot of local people are intimidated by gangs of teens blocking stairwells in the flats. There have been fights happening. Delivery riders have been knocked off their bikes and robbed. You’ve people who are afraid to walk down certain streets,” he says.
Although there has not been a knife crime in the area recently, Farrell says he has seen some teens carrying blades. “I saw one young fella with a machete that was almost as big as he was. The worry is that if they’re carrying them, they could end up using them.”
He says the changing language around violence suggests that knives are increasingly part of the culture. “Before, if there was a row, someone would say ‘I’ll box the head off you’, now it’s stuff like, ‘I’ll cut you, I’ll slice you.’ Most of them don’t even seem to be locals — this is a strong community — but they’re coming here from other parts of the city.”
Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan says an effective garda response to increasing knife crime is vital. “There’s more violence, that’s for sure,” he says. “I think a lot of boys and young men think that they need to carry a knife in order to defend themselves. Most of them who carry knives don’t intend to use them but unfortunately, as we’ve seen in recent times, when a row develops, and if somebody has a knife, that knife is produced and with tragic consequences.
“There are no simple solutions, but the first thing we need to do is to warn boys and young men about the dangers of carrying knives. If they were aware of the injuries suffered or the deaths caused by the use of knives, that would affect them in terms of the decision to carry a knife or not. We should be rolling out an education campaign on this to warn them about the danger.”
O’Callaghan says sentencing needs to be much more of a deterrent. “I introduced legislation [a private member’s bill] to increase the maximum sentence that can be imposed for carrying a knife with the intent to harm. The present maximum sentence is five years; I propose it should be increased to 10 years. That in itself isn’t going to stop the problem, but it would send out a strong message.”
Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond says knife crime has become an unwanted phenomenon throughout Ireland. “It’s a major worry and it’s ever-increasing. The number of people being hospitalised by knife injuries is on the up too,” he says. “And there have been high-profile and very sad stories of people who have been victims of knife attacks, including in my own constituency [Dublin Rathdown].”
Row over a bicycle
In May 2019, Azzam Raguragui, a local 18-year-old boy, died after being stabbed five times in a Dundrum park following a row over a bicycle. A 17-year-old boy was jailed for seven-and-a-half years last year.
In a victim impact statement, Azzam’s father, Abdul, said that he couldn’t get the image out of his head of the killer on CCTV celebrating and high-fiving with friends after the fatal attack. “In addition to losing my son in a heinous crime I also lost myself, my wife and two kids as we have never been the same,” he said.
Richmond believes Ireland should look to Scotland for how to respond. “It’s a country similar in many respects to ours and they have had a lot of success in not just reducing knife crime but in changing the culture around carrying knives. A lot of it is to do with effective policing and knife amnesties,” he says.
“Limerick tried a weapons amnesty in the past, with some success, and it’s something we should certainly be looking at. I’ve just had a conversation with Minister McEntee about how we can learn from Scotland.”
In the early 2000s, Scotland — and Glasgow in particular — had an unenviable reputation as the most violent country in the developed world. A so-called ‘booze and blade’ culture had resulted in several high-profile killings of teenagers. Young gangs took to carrying knives with them everywhere.
In 2005, Strathclyde Police set up a violence reduction unit with the express purpose of reducing knife crime. Stop-and-search operations were ramped up and prison sentences for knife-carrying more than trebled from four months on average to 13 months. The results were dramatic. Knife-carrying dropped by almost 70pc in a decade. While London became the knife crime capital of Britain, its incidence in Glasgow plummeted.
Dr Christine Goodall, a maxillofacial surgeon in Glasgow, co-founded Medics Against Violence in 2008. She had despaired of the number of young men and boys who were horrifically scarred by knife attacks. Too often, she says, children as young as 12 were on her operating table, and the slash wounds on their faces and neck would be there for life.
“It was not a quick process,” she says, “but the main thing we did was to take a public health approach to the problem. That means it’s not just a problem that within policing or health or education or social services. It’s something that everybody has to do together. The first thing you have to do is to acknowledge you have a problem — and some politicians, in particular, find that quite hard to do.”
Goodall says “primary prevention” was key. “That’s where you’re trying to stop the problem from happening in the first place — so we did a lot of work in schools with young people. There was a terrible gang problem at the time and we were aware that young people were getting inducted into gangs from when they started secondary school. Many of them were coming from backgrounds where there was significant addiction and/or violence in their households.
“We talked about the consequences of violence we had seen in hospitals. And we’re still going into schools to talk about those consequences — both physically and psychologically.”
Other approaches were pivotal too. “We realised that alcohol has playing a big part in this so we were trying to get people who had been hospitalised to cut down their drinking and not get into a violent situation again.
“And we introduced a navigator programme — they’re support workers in hospital emergency departments — and they meet people who are really ingrained in complex social issues like addiction, violence and homelessness. The ‘navigators’ worked with them intensively to move away from areas where there was a threat of violence.”
Ultimately, she says, it was “police, health, education and all these different factors coming together” that helped reduce the problem, even if she is at pains to point out that knife culture has not gone away in Scotland.
James Doorley, deputy director of the National Youth Council, says it is concerning that knife carrying has been normalised among some young people. “Anecdotally, you hear that they carry knives because they themselves feel unsafe. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy: ‘If everyone else is carrying one, I must too’.
“But while you can legislate and prosecute, you have to get to the root of the problem. Part of the reason there was so much success in places like Glasgow was because of the investment in outreach services. Ireland is crying out for more of that, but that’s really challenging at the moment with Covid and a lot of youth workers at present are really struggling to engage with young people. They’re doing really good work, but it’s much harder online.
“Right now,” he adds, “everyone is out of the school environment and there’s massive youth unemployment as well as no youth and sporting activities and those create extra challenges when it comes to trying to get to the root of knife crime.”
Iain Brennan is a forensic psychologist from Mallow, Co Cork. He is professor of criminology at the University of Hull in England and has spent years studying trends including the increase in knife crime.
“There’s a contagion effect,” he says. “The reasons people carry a knife are probably sown 10 years earlier in their lives — very often, kids involved in significant violence have seen violence early in their lives. And the research often contradicts the idea of fear as a reason for carrying a weapon. It’s a symptom of the wider cultural violence in their lives.
“Layer in peer influence at around 13 or 14 – if they’re in the wrong peer group, it’s very hard to walk away from it.”
Brennan says the easy, cheap availability of knives is helping to feed the problem. “Sometimes these things just come out of nowhere and a sort of arms race develops. But availability is a real problem.”
He says he understands calls from gardaí to step up visibility and random frisking but he believes they have to do it “very intelligently”. He, too, uses the example of Glasgow as a model cities like Dublin can learn from.
“They introduced [a style of policing known as] ‘focused deterrence’ where they really targeted certain groups — in Glasgow’s case, gangs comprising teens. They brought them in for conferences with the police and basically said: ‘If you don’t stop, we’re going to pull every single lever we possibly can to make your life hell and you as a group of people need to work together to collectively pull out of this’.
“This focused deterrence — also called ‘pulling levers’ — is one of the most effective strategies for violence reluctance in the United States. The thing is, you don’t want to bring out focused deterrence until you need it. It’s intensive and there possibly hasn’t been a need for it in Ireland. Until now. But that’s something the police will have to decide in light of the sort of things that have been happening in Dublin lately.”