Having lived in Cherry Orchard all his life, Brendan Cummins understands the area better than most. There were disturbing scenes in the estate in Ballyfermot, west Dublin, on Monday night when joyriders rammed a Garda car as onlookers whooped and jeered. The incident was videoed and the footage went viral on social media.
Cummins says there has been a spike in joyriding locally for about eight months, adding that the community’s “tolerance for it is probably higher than it should be”. However, while scenes like those witnessed on Monday night “haven’t happened since the 1990s”, the youth worker does not believe there is suddenly a crisis in the area.
“The cycle of a certain type of [anti social] behavior coming and going; that’s been happening for 30 years,” he says. “So we have to ask ourselves if the responses of the last 30 years are working. We might be putting plasters over these problems, but how do we get in and try something different to address the behavior properly?”
The “band aid” he refers to is the constant cycle of applying a criminal justice response to issues that will not be solved by policing. He points out that addiction is no longer treated in the Republic as a criminal justice matter, as it once was; a health-based approach has now become the norm. The leader of the youth work project, FamiliBase, in Ballyfermot – which supports at-risk families – says the key is to expand services to intervene with impoverished families and support them intensively.
“Starting off, that could mean there is no gas and electricity in the house, so you go get it for them,” he says of the acute needs some families experience. While providing such basic services could be seen as “enabling” some parents to take drugs, it also means children can live in a house with gas and electricity, says Cummins. And that means one parent “doesn’t have to go out and rob” to replace the money the other parent has just used “to smoke crack”.
He says while food and fuel poverty are “sexy” causes at present, the “in the now” needs of families below the breadline never change. Cummins adds that other State agencies may be reviewing a family because “little Johnny has just missed 25 days of school”. But he believes an intensive and local response team may be better placed to understand why the child is absent so often and to meet those “in the now” challenges to remedy the situation.
“Johnny might not be going to school because he’s afraid to leave Mammy at home because Daddy is beating her. So you have to find out what’s the reason for this, and how do we support you.”
Providing a key worker to go shopping with the mother while the child is in school could, Cummins says, reassure the child that it is safe for them to go to school and also ensure there is food in the house. He says these types of interventions are needed to address the acute anti-social behavior witnessed last Monday night rather than defaulting to the expectation gardaí should be the primary response agency.
The “band aid” approach Cummins refers to has already been applied in recent days to the events in Cherry Orchard. The Garda Public Order Unit has been put on standby, ready to be deployed if required. A visit to the area by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is planned while Garda Commissioner Drew Harris is also expected in Cherry Orchard in the coming days.
In a more immediate and direct wave of action, a series of Garda searches at six properties in Ballyfermot were carried out on Wednesday evening and items, including phones, were seized. Gardaí believe they have identified those involved in the disturbance on Monday – aged from their mid-teens to early 20s – when three stolen vehicles were raced around the streets. However, no arrests have been made to date.
Garda sources say morale in the Dublin Metropolitan Region West division, which includes Cherry Orchard, is “very low”. They are concerned at the level of resources available, pointing out that at times the same patrol car is shared by Clondalkin and Ballyfermot Garda stations.
One source says the drivers of the first three patrol cars to arrive on the scene on Monday had not undergone advanced driver training and so were not allowed to use their blue lights and sirens while moving.
However, as one source explains, when a Garda car is stopped, even gardaí who do not have advanced driver training are allowed to activate the blue lights. He points out that when the car that was rammed arrived on the scene, its blue lights were off. They were briefly activated when the car was stopped and being rammed before being turned off again as the gardaí in the car withdrew.
“So in that dangerous situation, because of the level of oversight we have now, the driver was thinking they had to make sure they complied with the rules or they’d be investigated,” he said.
Gardaí eventually arrived in other vehicles and they were members of specialist units – some of them armed – from other parts of west Dublin who had responded to the calls for back-up.
Another Garda source says some of the gardaí who first arrived on the scene had only recently graduated from the Garda College in Templemore, Co Tipperary.
He says an increasing number of gardaí are now reviewing their decision to join the force and are resigning after becoming acquainted with the pressures of the job, the lack of resources available and the increasing levels of administration now involved in policing.
Garda members familiar with policing in west Dublin confirmed 15 members of the force working there had resigned since early 2020. One said such resignations were “unthinkable even a few years ago” and reflected poorly on the force.
The Garda Representative Association says Ballyfermot Garda station has been closed for taking in prisoners since March 2020. One Garda source says this represents a “creeping downgrading” of the station as any arrests made in the area mean prisoners have to be taken to a station away from Ballyfermot, which takes policing resources off the streets.
Gardaí involved in an ongoing investigation into the theft of Japanese cars in west Dublin, which are proving popular with joyriders, believe the six suspects for last Monday’s scenes have been involved in those thefts and the resulting joyriding and burning out of the vehicles used.
That wider inquiry has already resulted in criminal charges for seven suspects and three of them have been remanded in custody for breaching bail conditions. However, there are some concerns in the Garda that the spotlight on Cherry Orchard’s joyriding may spur on, rather than deter, some of those involved.