A review of "Pushers Out: The inside story of Dublin’s anti-drugs movement" by Andre Lyder.
Walk five minutes from O’Connell St, Dublin’s main thoroughfare, or five minutes from Christ Church Cathedral, an important tourist attraction, and you will find yourself in a very different world from that depicted in the tourist brochures...
Pushers Out tells the story of how people living in the North Inner City and the South Inner City (and later the suburbs, and some small towns) organised to save their communities from heroin.
Andree Lyder, the author, lived in the south of the city. A member of a small socialist party and interested in community politics, he joined the anti-drug group COCAD in 1992, and soon became a committee member. His account of the Dublin anti-drug movement doesn’t pretend to be objective and is all the better for it. He describes the complexity and tensions within both of the campaigns, and while I would not agree with all his conclusions he has done a great service in dealing with many difficult issues in a clear and frank manner.
There were two campaigns against drug use in Dublin. The first known as the ‘Concerned Parents against Drugs’ began in1983. It was superseded in many parts of Dublin in 1996 by COCAD.
The Irish ruling class showed utter contempt for the poor inner city areas of Dublin. Charles Haughey, the corrupt Taoiseach (prime-mister) famously bought shirts worth five grand each and stole cobblestones from Dublin streets to pave the drive at his home, Meanwhile areas of the city were suffering over 80% unemployment. An epidemic was ravaging certain parts of the city, destroying lives, families and communities and the ruling elite were happy to ignore it. Lyder argues these areas always had a tradition of using alcohol as an escape from grinding poverty, such that the way was paved for heroin. He quotes one local
“I used to drink cider on the streets with the gangs I grew up with. We would buy a few flagons, sit down and have cider. At that stage they were called cider parties by the newspapers. Now that would have been around ’77. And then hash became what people started smoking. And all of a sudden hash turned to heroin you know…. it happened overnight but no one noticed it happen… I remember it being given out for free.. but at that stage I was lucky enough to go into pubs so it didn’t bother us….but the generation that came directly after me … drugs took over from cider. So drugs was the big out. (p30)”.
The campaigns began with meetings in local area called by residents concerned about the open dealing of heroin and all that came with that – hallways and greens were littered with dirty syringes, and those who overdosed lay where they fell.
A spectrum of strategies were adopted by the Concerned Parents and COCAD to deal with the problem; mass meetings would march to a suspected dealers house and tell him or her to get out of the area. Meetings would forcefully evict suspected dealers, making a line of people to remove the furniture so that no one person could be charged with any offence. Smaller groups of people (often from other areas to limit the possibility of revenge attacks) would call to the houses of suspected dealers and tell them they would have to leave. Posters with the photographs and addresses of dealers would be posted around the area locally. The communities would mount permanent vigil at the entry to their estates, preventing any suspected dealer or addict from outside the area from entry. These pickets were manned day and night and became a permanent fixture of inner city street life.
Lyder also addresses two of the most contentious features of the anti-drug campaigns, namely the extent to which the IRA was involved and the extent to which physical violence was an aspect of the campaigns.
Heroin is big business, and those standing in the way of that business can be putting themselves in considerable danger. Des Whelan, an anti drug activist was stabbed to death as was the fourteen year old son of another activist, others were shot at but survived. Lyder argued that while there were Sinn Fein members in the campaign, sometimes in prominent positions, they did not (as the media argued) control it or use it as a front. Their presence did, however, allow the anti-drugs activists to imply that they were under the protection of the IRA, and it seems, in the very early days they were
"Throughout the ‘80s and to a lesser degree for the COCAD campaign [a deterrent had] been provided by the notion that the IRA and the anti-drugs campaign were intrinsically connected and if one attacked the anti-drugs campaign one was effectively attacking the IRA. Within COCAD we referred to this as the ‘big bluff’. It was a bluff in the sense that no such intrinsic relationship existed, we had no guarantees from the IRA about anything and no reason the IRA would necessarily to feel obliged to respond to any particular threat to the anti-drugs campaign. Some sort of commitment was made in the early ‘80s to the emerging Concerned Parents and the IRA did respond to the shootings in St Teresas’s Gardens in 1983. This did not however, assure future response”(290)
However he also suggests that while officially the IRA were not involved, IRA volunteers on the ground, un-officially and at times against the command of the IRA, were involved in killings and attempted killings of drug dealers. In addition he describes a campaign that operated in parallel to COCAD (and was never discussed at COCAD meetings). Known as the ‘military campaign’ this was made up of groups of men who had access to weapons and were willing to respond, like with like, to attacks made by drug dealers. If a drug dealer parked a fancy car in an estate, it would more than likely be burnt out.
Few people would have problems with this, however Lyder also outlines the complications that arise when you have small groups acting independently of a mass campaign. In one instance a local man cynically used his association with the campaign to pressurise a businessman from involvement in a local taxi company. The businessman lost his money and once he departed the local man took over control of the company himself. Lyder argues that such out and out corruption was exceptional. A much more difficult case to deal with is the death in May 1996, at the hands of anti-drugs activists, of heroin user and small time dealer Josie Dwyer.
Josie Dwyer died from a blow to his spleen following an encounter with drugs activists on the evening of May the fourteenth. Lyder attended an anti-drugs meeting on the night and describes the chaos that ensued, as a proposed mass march on a drugs dealers home, fractured into small groups of people confronting suspected dealers. After his death, the media reported that Dwyer had been the victim of a frenzied attack that included the use of Iron bars and lump hammers. Lyder argues that in court the coroner did not find this to be the case. Josie Dwyer was a sick man his spleen was abnormally enlarged, Lyder argues that the blow that killed Josie Dwyer would not have been fatal to a healthy person. Thus he describes Josie Dwyer’s death as ‘tragic, if unintentional’ but his sympathy remains squarely with the activists who were subsequently tried and with those who were convicted. While I understand his perspective, I have difficulty with this, and no doubt for this he would consider me a liberal. However, to put it bluntly if the strategy you adopt includes beating up junkies with aids, it shouldn’t be a surprise if one of them dies. It is inevitable. In addition a criticism made frequently about the Concerned Parents (and less so with COCAD) was that in reality there is little distinction between being a junkie and a small time dealer and the Josie Dwyer case seems to provide evidence of this. Nobody argues that Josie Dwyer was a main player in Dublin Drugs cartels.
The police were always highly hostile to the anti-drugs campaigners, many of whom faced serious intimidation; they were stopped in the street, they were brought in for questioning, their houses were raided, they were beaten. It was widely suspected that some police were very close to major dealers, it is not mentioned in the book, but there were rumours that heroin appeared on the streets in police evidence bags. Lyder argues that with Josie Dwyer’s death the police went into overdrive. They were determined to break the anti-drugs campaign by incarcerating as many activists as possible (p 138)’. Thirteen were eventually arrested of which six were convicted and given twenty-month sentences. It has often been said that the Josie Dwyer’s death caused the anti-drugs campaign to fracture; Lyder argues that this was only true in the South Inner City.
1996 was also to see an explosion of anti-drug campaigns though out the city, this time mostly organised under the COCAD banner. The vigil began with renewed vigour and there were a number of large anti-drugs marches in the centre of Dublin. The political climate, changed slightly, with the defeat of ruling party Fianna Fail and the election of a coalition government that included the labour party and the greens. This was the era of social partnership and Lyder is particularly scathing about the incorporation of community resistance by ‘professional’ community workers. Neglect now has a benign face.
The end of the book details the turn towards electoralism (Lyder stood unsuccessfully in one general election and Sinn Fein made significant gains in terms of electoral politics) and the winding down of the campaign. Strangely (to my anarchist eyes anyway) no link is made between the two processes .
What was the end result? Lyder argues that the anti-drugs campaigned stabilised the extent of heroin users in the city, they moved drugs up the agenda, secured funding for treatment services, youth facilities and lead to a growth of local pride and sense of community. The drug problem wasn’t ‘solved’ but it was contained (and in this respect, Lyder is critical of government responses which rely on methadone maintenance rather than support for detoxification and rehabilitation).
There is an entire history of the city in this book, a history that without it would remain mostly hidden. Indeed one of the most interesting aspects of the campaigns is mentioned just as a brief aside ‘women were the backbone of the campaign, overwhelming filling the meetings and marches’ (p. 234). Interestingly he also adds, that despite this women were rarely members of the executive committees.
He touches on many other issues in the book- the media attacks, the farcical reality of the district courts and the various approaches to rehabilitation. The story told here is far from simple, the dilemmas faced difficult. This is a book that raises as many questions as it answers, indeed it highlights that many of these questions that don’t have easy answers. Yet as these are questions that continue to be important to those of us who hope to build a better world, Lyder has done us a great service in documenting an important moment of in working class history, a moment when the people of Dublin organised themselves and took back control of their communities.