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Dublin – Fair City or Failed City?

No street in Ireland is stitched into Irish history quite like Dublin’s O’Connell Street. The former Sackville Street has seen it all from empires to rebellions to its present sorry decline as is evidenced by the headlines around an attack on an American tourist earlier this summer. 

By common consent, O’Connell Street is looking the worst for wear. It’s not just the proliferation of fast-food outlets and associated retail outlets that strikes one – it’s also the general air of menace now afflicting much of Dublin’s north inner city.

This is not make-believe. A recent survey by business group Dublin Town tracked a perceptible change in public attitudes towards personal safety in Dublin. In 2020, 55% of respondents said they felt safe during the daytime in north central Dublin compared to 74% of respondents in 2016. In the afternoon/evening the same figure was 35%, down from 51% in 2016. The night figure was just 15%, down from 24% in 2016.

This is hardly surprising given the location of several methadone clinics in central Dublin. The thinking behind this may have been well intentioned – the Luas and most bus routes serve central Dublin so why not locate the methadone clinics there?

It sounds great but the problem is it sets up a drug dealers’ paradise where all of your potential clients are now concentrated in one area. Add in the criminality that follows drug dealing as well as the addition of large numbers of unattached single males who are lodged at different stages of Ireland’s broken asylum system and you get some idea of the environment that is today’s central Dublin.

Yet another feature of the dystopian shambles that is the modern day O’Connell Street is the on-street charitable food stall. Handing out sandwiches and the like to anyone interested in taking them might sound like a good news story about feeding the poor. However, there is a growing realisation among many in the sector that such untargeted initiatives may only result in enabling some people to continue to live on the streets.

This was very much the conclusion of a report commissioned by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive which also cited that these food stalls can act as an attraction for drug dealing and anti-social behaviour not to mention the litter and food debris left behind.

One of the features of O’Connell Street in recent times is the high-profile street food stall run by the Muslim Sisters of Eire, a Muslim charity, under the very portals of the GPO. However well-intentioned it might be, there is nothing to suggest that distributing sandwiches and bottled water randomly is going to solve the deep-seated issues underlying Dublin’s street vagrancy problem.

Indeed, the active promotion by the Muslim Sisters of Eire of their own work on social media and a refusal to take on board any criticism of their street food operations would suggest that solving Dublin’s street vagrancy problem may not be MSOE’s only consideration in running such street food stalls.

By now, demanding a greater garda presence on O’Connell Street has become the knee jerk solution to most if not all of the problems of this beleaguered street. Certainly, there is a lack of a garda presence which emboldens the anti-social elements but no one should be naïve enough to think that simply putting more gardai on the street will magically solve its problems.

O’Connell Street’s problems go deeper than that and do not lend themselves to any one quick fix solution. For one thing, the retail and related economic decline of the street has been ongoing for some time now and cannot be fixed overnight by flooding it with gardai – not that they would appear to be available anyway.

O’Connell Street in 2023 is, above all else, the product of a particular political culture. In the 1960s, the term ‘inner city’ became popular amongst American sociologists. It quickly became a byword for the acceptance of economic dereliction and a tolerance of low level anti-social behaviour. This perfectly describes central Dublin over the last half century.

The other part of that inner city syndrome was that it became a sort of laboratory for all sorts of social projects being pushed by well-meaning people most of whom did not actually live in the urban setting they were actively degrading.

This may well help to explain the near automatic location of facilities like direct provision centres, methadone clinics, injection centres, wet house hostels, on street food stalls etc all in the same ‘inner city’. The sentiments might have been well intentioned but the cumulative effect can often be the creation of an environment which rewards deviant anti-social behaviour and effectively punishes ordinary law-abiding citizens.

In many respects, this is typified by a body like Dublin City Council and especially its elected councillors. For the last 30 years, it could be said that its councillors and successive lord mayors have become exemplars of progressive liberalism. It has now become near mandatory for councillors to assert the rights of and fly flags for just about every minority group under the sun. However, the same councillors don’t appear half as keen in asserting the right of your ordinary Dubliner to walk the length of O’Connell Street without being accosted.

The thing about many of these self-styled progressive councillors – particularly those from middle class areas – is that their enthusiasm for various social projects is usually only matched and indeed exceeded by a fervent wish that such projects are not located in their own electoral areas. As a result, they are usually located in – you guessed it – the ‘inner city’.

No one likes to admit it but many of these projects often create more problems than they solve. However, the official response is never to talk about closing them down but instead to talk about setting up yet another project in an effort to remediate the problems caused by the first.

What O’Connell Street needs now is some tough love. And no, an on-street armed militia is not what is needed but it is reasonable to expect the same kind of on-street police visibility found in most other European cities.

Above all, there needs to be an awareness at official level that the social environment you create will, in turn, form people’s on-street experiences. Unfortunately, the social environment that Dublin City Council, its councillors and Official Ireland have created is one that tips the balance in favour of street vagrancy and its related anti-social behaviour.

Perhaps it’s now time to tip the balance back in favour of the ordinary law-abiding citizens who walk O’Connell Street every day. Accepting that Dublin City Council’s ultra left and liberal political culture may have played a role in creating today’s Dublin might be a useful starting point. Indeed, with the local elections due to take place next June, maybe it’s time for Dubliners to remind their flag-waving councillors that it’s time to take Dublin city seriously again.

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