Why is there such an appetite among the law-abiding public for stories about violent career criminals? Why do ordinary citizens want to hear about gangsters, guns, drugs, and murder?
It’s a phenomenon full of contradictions. Some of the interest is attributed to concern about “escalating” violence – the violence associated with the current “feud”, for example.
But the murder rate in Ireland has fallen to 30 in 2015, a 21-year low, the Irish Times reported in March. We’ll have to see how the statistics work out for 2016, but one thing is certain.
The real threat to working-class communities from the drug trade is not this string of shootings, but the tendency among the vulnerable and disadvantaged to succumb to heroin addiction.
At press conferences, An Garda Síochána say their current operations are guided by a deep concern for the well-being of these communities. But if this is a real concern, it is a relatively new one.
Our police force did far too little to tackle the heroin epidemic that swept Dublin in the 1980s. Instead, they spent too much of their energy harassing and demonising community groups that arose to combat the crisis – groups like Concerned Parents Against Drugs.
The gardaí were so effective in this task that these organisations were swiftly – and often brutally – disempowered and disbanded. Gardaí have not been nearly as effective against the gangs they now say they are determined to tackle.
The contradictions don’t end there.
Since this “feud” started in September, seven people have been killed. This has garnered massive media attention, and an enormous (if misdirected) response from the police and politicians.
Meanwhile, 10 people per week commit suicide in this country, according to Pieta House. That garners far less media attention.
But it’s ten real human beings. More than 500 a year, some 4,000 since the start of austerity, far more than the number who died in 30 years of that dirty war we euphemistically refer to as “the Troubles”.
The threat posed by gangsters pales into absolute insignificance next to the threat posed by addiction, the homelessness crisis and the healthcare crisis, not to mention the entrenched, massive, systemic inequality in our education system.
The financial crisis that was used as an excuse for a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich (and gargantuan cuts in health spending all round) was, in this country, brought about by recklessness, poor regulation and criminality in the banking and financial sectors.
Among the measures taken to prevent this from happening again was the creation of the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE). But by 2014, the Independent was reporting that the office had only one accountant for its criminal investigations, something the Indo called a “national scandal that would be an embarrassment even in a banana republic”.
In Ireland today a “white collar” is a carte blanche to commit crime – the sort of crime that crippled this economy, consigning thousands tens of thousands to emigration, and contributing to the suicides of many thousands more.
In this context, all the votes cast in the last election for the continuation of Fine Gael’s policies can be said to have endangered lives.
So why all the hype and “concern” for the danger gangsters pose to communities, but not the real issues facing ordinary people?
Well, to be fair to the media, there is an enormous demand for stories about gangsters. I should know. My own novel Dublin Seven (charting one young Dubliner’s descent into the underworld), sold so fast it had to be reprinted after only a couple of months on the shelves.
So I’m also guilty of building a media profile for myself by selling a gangster narrative. But I live in Dublin’s inner city. Like a lot of working-class young men, I’ve taken a few walks on the wrong side of the tracks. I know young men who have ended up in prison. I knew young men who have been murdered.
But even having lived in that world, and having had my share of clashes with dangerous people myself, I’m not scared by recent events. In fact, excepting the incredibly unfortunate friends, families and neighbours of those involved, I don’t think most people are frightened either. I think they are entertained.
Gerry Adams, attempting to defend inner-city communities from stigma, was ridiculed for saying there is no such thing as “gangland”. I suspect what he was actually trying to say was that “gangland” is not a geographic area. And this is true.
Dublin is too small a city for gangsters to be contained within certain postal districts. Drugs are bought and consumed right across this city – across class boundaries as well as electoral ones So Adams is right, there is no specific “place” that is “gangland”.
There is an alternate reality populated by professional criminals that barely touches the lives of the ordinary Joe Soap. It’s just that this world exists in the same spaces in which the city’s law-abiding inhabitants reside.
The underworld, gangland – whatever you want to call it – is a parallel universe, a world in which the risks and rewards we all face are intensified and made more immediate.
We all have to deal with our mortality. We all seek status and wealth. The underworld is a microcosm in which the most important human concerns, the problems and temptations that we all face, are intensified, amplified – and hastened.
People make and lose fortunes – and live and die – over months, not decades.
This is why people are so obsessed with gangsters. It is entirely natural that we find this world so enthralling – it’s nothing to feel guilty about.
But there remains a serious problem with people indulging in the portrayals of this world that are currently being put forward. The story is being told primarily from the perspective of the gardaí.
If sources are cited by crime reporters (very often they aren’t), they are usually anonymous gardaí – who offer stories that are all too neat, and are generally printed without question, examination or criticism.
This system of gardai leaking stories that favour their agendas and views of the world to crime reporters who allow them to evade responsibility for the stories they’re spreading by hiding behind anonymity is shameful.
And it can have very serious – sometimes violent – implications for the lives of real, often vulnerable human beings.
Relying on gardaí for stories also puts crime journalists in debt to members of our police force. This is a dangerous and insidious dynamic.
I sometimes see muscle-bound men driving SUVs with tinted windows, wearing balaclavas and openly carrying automatic weapons in the inner city.
These are the gardaí. If the children of the North Inner City are scared, what are they seeing that is scaring them?
“We must demilitarize our police forces so they don’t look and act like invading armies,” says US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.
He could have been talking about inner-city Dublin.
Before I was eighteen, I’d been mistreated by gardaí in ways that have left me furious at the police force to this day.
I was certainly no gangster as a kid, but the complete disregard for the law that I saw police display left me with nothing but disdain for the law myself.
I’m sure many other young men from Dublin have had similar experiences, and come to similar conclusions about the gardaí and the law.
But there’s one portion of our populace that is disproportionately targeted by our police force. Do boys get stopped by gardaí on their way home from Blackrock College?
Do they get assaulted, verbally abused, or referred to with the sort of degrading, dehumanising language that is somehow still socially acceptable in Ireland?
“Scrote”. “Scumbag”. “Knacker”. If you use words like these, ask yourself how far are they away from “nigger”.
“A private school on Dublin’s Southside attended by children related to the extended Hutch family is getting security advice from An Garda Siochana, in an alarming development that shows how the murderous feud is escalating from the confines of gangland to the heart of civil society.”
These reprehensible lines appeared in the Independent recently, and are still up on the paper’s website. How this shameful paragraph managed to get past the editors is astounding.
Okay, now I’m afraid. It terrifies me that journalistic standards have plummeted so far that it’s acceptable to deem working-class communities outside the bounds of “civil society”.
It is a statement that denigrates working-class communities and defines gangland in precisely the terms Gerry Adams was rebutting.
I don’t want to see more police in the inner city. We’ve been targeted enough. It’s time to go after the politicians and the financial elite. It’s time to go after people who actually have power.
Micheál Martin, the current leader of the government-supporting “opposition” (another mind-bending contradiction), demanded recently in the Dáil that the state “get into the face of these criminals”, according to the Irish Times.
Donal Macintyre, another crime commentator and journalist confidently asserted that solutions are easy and obvious: “community policing” combined with “hard in-your-face policing”.
Our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, is on the same page. He just promised to give our police force whatever resources they request to address gangland violence.
These measures will be utterly unsuccessful. This is because they quite simply do nothing to address the causes of the violence.
There is no policing solution to gangland violence. The fact that murders can be carried out in the North Inner City while an army of armed gardaí patrol the streets should make that obvious.
The causes of the violence actually aren’t mysterious, and neither are the solutions. But the solutions are long-term, and there is no quick fix.
Gangland exists for two reasons: prohibition and inequality. Those who profess an urgent desire to address the situation – the crime journalists, the gardaí, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the establishment in general – are determined to tackle neither.
Until prohibition and inequality are addressed, more people will die, more column inches will be filled, and more hypocrisy and contradictions will be spewed forth by all and sundry.
My advice is not to feel guilty about being fascinated by gangsters – but stick to fiction. There’s more truth there than anywhere else.