The Public Reaction of Sympathy and Outrage at the Killing of Shane Geoghan

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The public reaction of profound sympathy and outrage at the killing of Shane Geoghegan, by a killer or killers involved in a bloody feud between drug-dealing gangs in Limerick, is totally justified. Shane Geoghegan was an innocent bystander mistaken for the true target – a member of one of the rival Limerick drug gangs. Shane Geoghegan has tragically joined the growing list of innocents killed by drug gang violence in Ireland. This list includes another Limerickman Brian Fitzgerald, who bravely stood up to gang intimidation, and, of course, Veronica Guerin, who was assassinated because she was relentless and courageous in her attempt to expose the wrongdoing of gang leaders.

This latest killing, like that of Veronica Guerin, breaches the widespread, public indifference to gangland killings, because it demonstrates the ordinary citizen’s vulnerability to the savagery of gangs. Because people in general can identify with the totally perverse and undeserved horror of Shane Geoghegan’s death, this killing has provoked strong emotions and angry demands that something be done. By contrast, the public’s complacent acceptance of the dozens of murders of gang members seems to be a consequence of, on the one hand, the criminal justice system’s continuing failure to detect, proceed against and punish the vast majority of these crimes, and, on the other, a perception that the usual gangland killings are a form of internal self-destruct mechanism which serves a useful purpose in ridding society of some of its most dangerous and out of control elements.  This perception is supported by the fact that some gang members have clearly chosen to live by the sword and knowingly risk dying by the sword, rarely looking to the law to protect them.  Indeed the evident inviolability of gangland killers largely arises from their utter ruthlessness in the performance of violent crime, their cowardly use of stealth and surprise, their cunning defensive awareness of forensic issues, their contempt for the law and their embrace of outlaw values based on rapid and unrestrained resort to violence as a solution to conflicts of all kinds.

In response to the public outrage at the murder of Veronica Guerin in 1996, a galvanised Irish government advanced the, superficially at least, most impressive package of anti-crime measures ever proposed in this country. A logjam of long-discussed reforms was released in a sudden cascade of legislation, new structures and additional resources. Reforms included the introduction of the Criminal Assets Bureau, Operation Dochas, targeting street drug-dealing in Dublin communities, a very considerable expansion of prison places, the Bail amendment to the Constitution, allowing for preventative detention, and seven day detention for suspected drug barons. While the clear emphasis was on overtly draconian penal approaches in order to signal that the government was ‘tough on crime,’ some significant progress was also made by the then Rainbow Coalition Government and succeeding governments in tackling the underlying causes of crime and in establishing preventative programmes. For example, the first drug-free prison regime was initiated, the methadone maintenance programme was massively expanded, the local drug task forces were set up in deprived, drug-infested areas, the process of transforming and enhancing the living conditions in selected, notoriously disadvantaged social housing areas such as Fatima Mansions and Ballymun was begun and, under the Rabbite initiative, large funds were committed for anti-drugs and youth development programmes. The Fianna Fail led governments that have been in power since the late nineties have continued the tradition of responding to media-generated panics about crime with rushed legislation designed to increase the ‘toughness’ of law enforcement, but have also continued, if somewhat less enthusiastically, to invest in alternative, preventative community-based approaches. John O’Donoghue’s constant, populist, but largely irrelevant and ineffectual, theme was zero tolerance and the hyperactive Michael McDowell was invariably inventive and overconfident in coming up with ways, such as mandatory minimum sentences, Ricco-type laws and restrictions on the right to silence, to ‘rebalance’ the criminal justice system, which he claimed favoured the criminal. By and large, all of the new criminal justice legislation has amounted to nothing more than tinkering with the criminal justice system to little good effect.

However, in the late nineties there was a marked decline in burglaries and larcenies, which gave rise to a short-lived belief that the more proactive response in place since 1996 could be truly effective. In fact, the temporary decline in crime was most probably linked to the fact that many thousands of opiate addicts, who had been financing their habit through theft, were then, and are still now, being supplied with their opiates by the State or they were in prison. However, from our present point of view in 2008  it is difficult to find any evidence to support the proposition that the government’s social programmes and law enforcement actions of the last 12 years have had any substantial and enduring effect in curtailing the criminal drugs gang culture in Ireland. In fact, an objective appraisal of the present situation must conclude that, despite very substantial investment and considerable efforts on many fronts, the general situation is now far worse and far more complex and intractable than in 1996.

Since 1996 there has been no let up in gangland killing and related violence. Indeed in  2006 there were 27 homicides by gun, more than 20 of which were drug gang related. In 2007 there were 18 and this number has already been surpassed for 2008. The number of gangland deaths in recent years is far greater than the number occurring in 1996 and the preceding years. Many young people are still being recruited into injecting use of opiates and in recent years, opiate use has spread out from the cities to small provincial towns, such as Portloaise, Arklow and Athlone. In 2007, the National Advisory Committee on Drugs produced a report on cocaine use in Ireland, which confirmed the fact that the drugs culture in Ireland is actually becoming more embedded and more widespread. They concluded that ‘all the indicators point to a continued increase in cocaine use, that this cocaine use crosses all social strata and that the impact is very much experienced nationwide’. Most significantly, the drugs gangs can now  rely on the collusion and financial support of  large segments of Irish society, by no means  restricted to the more disadvantaged groups living in marginalized estates and inner city areas.

The number of drug dealers at various levels, who have been convicted and imprisoned, has greatly increased, but this has made barely a dent on the criminal drugs trade, which has flourished and greatly expanded in the last 12 years. The amount of drugs and firearms seized has also greatly increased but again this does not by any means indicate a significant disturbance in the availability of drugs on the streets or of guns to criminals. Indeed drugs of all kinds are cheaper and more available than ever and, as many reputable surveys testify, more frequently and more widely availed of. The drug gangs have become progressively more vicious and violent and have adopted a machismo gun culture, regularly importing automatic weapons with their drug consignments. The fact that they are armed and more than ready to use firearms has become a central part of gang members’ self-glorifying identity.

Modern societies strive, with considerable success, to contain violence and regulate its use. Physical punishment has been banned from schools and in some countries from the home and, in polite company, overtly aggressive conduct has become a greater taboo and more reprehensible than explicit sexual behaviour. Safe areas and comfortable lifestyles are increasingly protected by the use of gated communities, CCTV systems and exclusive, privately policed districts for shopping and socialising. These sanitising and securitising measures have been beneficial for the privileged,  respectable majority, but it can be argued that they are more effective at redistributing violence than at abolishing it. While the lives of the majority may be more free of violence, violence has become more concentrated, more intense and more visible at the anarchic margins and amongst those with non-conformist lifestyles – the substance abusers, the criminal, the homeless and the teenage gang-members.

While it is still a fundamental truth that tough and unfair conditions create tough and unfair people, the traditionally family-based criminal gang culture in Ireland has evolved very rapidly through the drugs era, embracing stigma, criminality and violence and turning them to their own advantage. They have become wealthy and powerful by being ruthless and feared. The drugs market in Ireland is estimated to be worth a billion euro and it is effectively a criminal monopoly that enriches those ruthless enough to use violence and intimidation in order to turn a profit. Some young criminals now coming to maturity have never known poverty or want, but they have been exposed to what is now a very potent, dynamic and seductive counterculture. As they have grown up within their families and neighbourhoods they have been inescapably conditioned to reject societal authority and values, to be loyal to their own, and to rely on extreme violence. The drugs and gang culture has now become so entrenched that even the children of respectable families in relatively deprived areas are easily enticed into the negatively glamorous and highly exciting, drug-saturated and gun-loving  world of the street gang. The immense obsession of the Irish tabloid press with members of gangs may occasionally put them under unwanted pressure, but mostly serves only to fuel their self-glorifying fantasies of themselves as latter day John Dillingers or Al Capones. There is now even an indigenous film industry which through films like Intermission provides young potential thugs with glamorous gun-toting role models, whom they can emulate.

The Celtic Tiger has had obviously positive effects, but has also had many negative effects, some of which impact on society’s ability to respond effectively to the growth of drug use and violent gang culture. The cultural forces that have encouraged drug use and have therefore empowered drug gangs have brought immense changes to Irish society and local communities. Despite the existence of a new level of political awareness of the underlying causes and despite all the new structures and actions specifically designed for the purpose, we are now far less able to respond effectively to the challenges and dangers of drugs and gangs. The boom period has accelerated the spread of materialism, consumerism, self-centredness, isolation and alienation in Irish life. The more frenetic pace of life and increased levels of stress, the much sharper educational and workplace competition, and commuting, child-care and housing issues all play a role. The old restraining bonds of family, church and community are withering and there is an increasing adherence amongst young Irish people to cynicism, apathy, moral relativism and a hedonistic code of excess. The pervasive obsession with ever more convenient and exciting electronic mass media and forms of communications and with a now globalised popular culture expose people to many psychologically unhealthy role models and cut them off from their local communities and the kind of activities that build solidarity and mutual trust.

All these factors have impacted powerfully on the kind of socialisation provided for our young people and on society’s political capacity to shape positive values and lifestyles and to maintain a constructive sense of interdependence and social inclusiveness. The experience of isolation, alienation, stress and, quite possibly, a sense of being devalued as a person inevitably takes a toll, making it more likely that vulnerable people will turn to alcohol and drugs as a form of release, escape or individual affirmation. The same forces undermine society’s inbuilt, constructive defences against people and groups who for one reason or another reject its values and opt for criminality.

This means that huge emphasis is placed on society’s need to repress crime through the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, though a criminal justice response is necessary and entirely appropriate, as recent history has demonstrated the war against crime and indeed the war against drugs cannot be won through law enforcement. The law and the threat of punishment have minimal deterrent effect on gang members and drug users alike, not because it is ineffective, but because the criminals it targets, including both gang members and drug users, are rarely mindful of the law and its sanctions. There are undoubtedly numerous ways in which the law and the criminal justice system could be updated and made more coherent and effective. But even more effective law enforcement is very limited in the face of the kind of cultural conditions which now prevail and which incentivise a significant cohort of young people into casually embracing the code of violence.

The official response to the outcry over Shane Geoghegan’s murder has been more muted and mature than in the past. The Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern has stated that “we cannot legislate away the need for evidence” and the Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy has resisted the usual path of calling for more police powers.  These more realistic appraisals are perhaps related to a growing recognition of the failure of all the previous, criminal law panaceas and to an awareness that there are few ‘tougher’ measures available that do not entail major and obvious loss of civil liberties for society as a whole. For example, there are many advocates for the introduction of internment of gang members on the word of a Chief Superintendent. Such a move would be a significant step towards an authoritarian   police state. It would, none the less, be ineffective at eliminating recruitment of violent young men into the immensely lucrative drugs trade, and would also have the potential to be seriously counterproductive. That kind of repression tends to confirm deviant groups in their identity and increase their resentment and intransigence.  It also often has the effect of escalating violence and causing it to spread – especially onto targets within the law enforcement system.

In this grim context, an increasingly popular response is to urge the large number of recreational drug users to act on their consciences and desist from drug use, specifically because it inevitably involves them in giving support to violent criminal gangs. I have argued at some length in my recent book The Irish War on Drugs: The Seductive Folly of Prohibition that this approach is, for many different reasons, very unlikely to be fruitful.  Instead, I suggest that in the long term the most effective way to reverse current trends and undermine the synergy between drugs and violent criminality would be to decriminalise all drugs. A strong case can be made that this approach, if associated with strong educational and preventive programmes, would not only disempower drug gangs but would also lead to less drug use or at least to more responsible drug use and thus less destructive drug use.

Dr. Paul O’Mahony is a criminologist and a lecturer in criminal law in Trinity College, Dublin. Read Alex Klemm’s review of that here. Also, Alex recently interviewed Dr. O’Mahony for ILR’s first podcast.

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Dr. Paul O'Mahony is a criminologist and a lecturer in criminal law in Trinity College, Dublin. He is also author of the recent book The Irish War on Drugs: The Seductive Folly of Prohibition

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