Fergus Finlay: What turns boys into killers?

As boys as young as 13 and 14 are questioned over last weekend’s frenzied murder of DJ David Byrne, why is teen violence becoming more commonplace?

Fergus Finlay

A teenager convicted for the manslaughter of his 50-year-old neighbour in Dublin.

The frenzied murder of two Polish men by out-of-control young people.

Teenagers in custody for questioning over the death of a young man, Dubliner David Byrne, who was stabbed up to five times after being chased from his home.

A man almost loses his arm after being attacked with a machete.

The violence increases, the brutality of the attacks gets more frenzied ... and the perpetrators are younger.

When young people -- children -- get involved in serious violence, it's rare, and it's troubling. It used to be rare. But it's hard to open the newspapers nowadays without seeing stories of very young people being investigated for, or charged with, crimes of violence.

What's gone wrong? Who's at fault here?

I wish there was an easy answer. I wish we could just blame the parents, or society, or the Gardai, and leave it at that. But it's not that easy.

A couple of years ago I met a group of teachers in Dublin's inner city. One of them told me -- and none of his colleagues disagreed -- that each year he meets a group of six year olds, new to his school. And almost at a glance, he said, he could tell the ones who were bound for Mountjoy. By the time he meets them, he added, it's almost too late.


There's a clue in that. Just as most of the inmates in Mountjoy come from a small number of postal districts, so do a lot of the young gang members.

Those postal districts are associated, indelibly, with deeply embedded, multi-generational poverty. Ghettoised poverty. Stigmatised poverty. The kind of poverty that breaks down parenting, and that all too often turns the presumption of innocence into the assumption of guilt.

Poverty isn't enough of an explanation, of course it isn't. But there's a vicious cycle associated with it all the same -- especially when it is trapped in the generations. The child who doesn't learn to read, and never knows the words of a nursery rhyme, is likely, maybe even certain, to start school behind and to stay behind. That leads to bad behaviour in class, and in too many cases to early school leaving.

There's no glamour in a life like that, no status. But status can come from a gang. It can come from running and watching for drug pushers. It can come from making people afraid of you. All the studies available show that when we institutionalised and ghettoised poverty -- especially when the rest of us were "partying", to quote Brian Lenihan, we forgot that we were creating a generation of angry, alienated, and ultimately violent kids.

And these are kids who can't rely on good and effective parenting, because there are too many parents whose own lives are out of control, too many parents who can't cope with the stresses and strains that go hand in hand with alcohol, drugs, and the domestic pressures when you can't afford rent or heating.

According to one study, half of all crimes committed by young people are as a result of alcohol abuse. Where did that habit come from? Which role model inspired that?

So what do we do? The Gardai, for instance, are already doing good work. They're experimenting with case management techniques to try to help some kids, at least, to get back in control of their own lives, and the results are encouraging.

There is huge remedial work going on in communities all around Dublin and the rest of the country, trying to pick up the pieces after the damage has been done.

But it's not enough. Social work services are still poorly resourced. They know who the kids at risk are, they even know where they live. But they still can't get to them in time. They still can't address the crisis in parenting that is affecting too many communities and neighbourhoods.

We need to start from scratch. Making sure every ten year old can read -- that would be a good start. Making sure the three year olds have a nice place to play, and somewhere safe to turn, would be even better. And it wouldn't cost a lot. It certainly wouldn't cost as much as the life of a victim shattered by violence, or even the life of a perpetrator spent in the most expensive form of treatment we have -- a life in jail.

Fergus Finlay is Chief Executive of Barnardos in Ireland