The death of community activist John “Whacker” Humphrey a few weeks ago reminded the country of the Concerned Parents Against Drugs (CPAD) campaign in which he played such a central role.
Heroin began to make its presence felt in Dublin in a big way in the late 1970s. In some ways, it was a perfect storm, coming at a time of mass unemployment in the inner-city, as traditional industries were faltering.
The journalist Jim Downey wrote in 1978 that, “It was in the inner city and in some of the soulless anonymous new estates and high rise flats that the greatest problems were to be seen and to be seen to be worsening; squalor, poverty, unemployment, alienation, hopelessness and juvenile crime.”
There had been a Garda Drugs Squad since 1967, set up under Inspector Denis Mullins. But it was totally unprepared for the epidemic of heroin, as was everyone else. What was clear was that among the areas most at risk when it came to heroin was the deprived inner-city.
A 1983 survey found that approximately 10 percent of 15- to 23-year-olds in the north inner-city has tried heroin, according to André Lyder’s book Pushers Out: The Inside Story of Dublin’s Anti-drugs Movement. In 1985, it was estimated by one survey that there were in the region of 1,700 “opiate misusers” in the city, and a fivefold increase in heroin addiction between 1979 and 1983.
Out of all of this emerged protest and opposition, coming originally from a somewhat unlikely source. Fr Jim Smyth, a Jesuit priest working in Dublin’s north inner-city, was perhaps not typical of a street-protest champion. But he lived in the Hardwicke Street flats, and witnessed the reality of addiction first-hand.
Fr Smyth set the ball in motion, calling meetings of residents in 1982, which attracted the mothers and fathers of those dealing with issues of addiction. One of those who approached Fr Smyth was Christy Burke, who is now an independent Dublin city councillor, and one of the longest-serving figures in local politics.
At the time, Burke was a Sinn Féin community activist. Fr Smyth told Burke: “I don’t agree with the Provos’ policies, but all of the women in the flats respect you and we need your help. The place is riddled with drugs.”
In a brilliant piece by Patrick Freyne for the Irish Times, Burke remembered the initial stages of the movement: “It was a room full of mammies and daddies with an IRA activist and a priest.”
It began in Hardwicke Street. In the words of one activist, quoted in Pushers Out, the approach was simple: “Firstly we approached the known pushers and told them that they either had to stop dealing or get out. Some just continued to push. They were ostracised by the entire community and we got everybody in the flats to march to the pushers’ flats, stand outside their doors and chant their names.”
As Hardwicke Street marched, other parts of Dublin took interest. They copied their tactics. The campaigns spread across the Liffey, into Saint Teresa’s Gardens, where Whacker Humphrey was central to the campaign.
Pushers Out documents how it snowballed. At Fatima Mansions, a meeting in August 1983 drew hundreds of people – so many that it had to be held outside, rather than inside. Again, it was called by a local priest.
The CPAD would invite well-known local dealers to meetings, where they would be publicly condemned. If they didn’t show up, the CPAD would march to their homes.
Incredibly, sometimes, they did appear. The meetings could become heated. At one, an angry Tony Gregory told one dealer that, “If you’d any decency left in you, you’d walk straight into the Liffey and drown yourself.”
In time, the group spread from the inner-city flats into working-class suburbia. Confrontation with dealers was frequent. A number of criminals, including Martin “The General” Cahill, adopted the moniker “Concerned Criminals Action Group”, and complained that the CPAD were interfering with non-drug criminal activities.
There was the grotesque spectacle of a march of criminals in Crumlin, where masked men attacked the cars and homes of Sinn Féin and CPAD activists. On one occasion, shots were fired in Saint Teresa’s Gardens by those seeking to intimidate the campaign.
This was all a terrifying prospect to the press, and caused mayhem within the political arena too, where it was maintained that it was the job of the state and not vigilantes to confront dealers.
“Ex-cons head anti-drugs crusade”, the Irish Independent thundered, pointing out that a number of prominent figures in the CPAD had served time for political offences in the North.
But raising the bogeyman of the IRA ignored the fact that while there were many Sinn Féin activists involved in the CPAD, they were always in the minority of the movement’s central committee and virtually all local committees across Dublin.
In May 1989, four CPAD activists were brought to court, charged with entering a flat in the Sean McDermott tower in Ballymun, damaging it, and throwing all the furniture and fittings out the window. The trial took place at the non-jury Special Criminal Court.
A trend of CPAD trials before this, at both District Court and Circuit Court level, had been “not guilty” jury decisions, reflecting popular support for what the CPAD was doing. The Ballymun case, in the Special Criminal Court, remains one of the strangest legal cases in Irish history.
The three dealers living in the flat, all convicted drug dealers, were called as witnesses for the prosecution. One of the men had recently been arrested in England, charged with possession of £60,000 of heroin, before escaping back to Ireland before his court date.
As Lyder says in Pushers Out, “anti-drugs activists were outraged that a man being actively sought by the English police on major drugs charges was being into a witness stand by the Irish ones.”
Two of the men, John “Whacker” Humphrey and Hugh Cahill, were convicted and sentenced to prison. The focus of activism switched from confronting dealers on the ground to campaigning for the release Humphrey and Cahill. It drained energy from the campaign.
The CPAD had many successes, but also hit hurdles. State repression was real. Still, more than anything, the movement brought pride into working-class communities, and showed a model of community organising that could be replicated later in other campaigns.
In the following decade, Dubliners would again take to the streets against dealers in their communities.