As Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth prepare to visit our capital, two events which are largely irrelevant to the day-to-day lives of the vast majority of its residents, John Meagher meets the people who say that the city can still be rescued.
It is a setting that’s a world away from the grim, worn-out Dublin of businessmen, rugby fans, Ugg-booted adolescents and braying after-work drinkers. In a room in a House — one of the capital’s buildings — inner city resident Gerry Breen is refusing to pull punches as he describes his own city.
“The inner city of Dublin, especially the north side, has been left to decay over generations because there aren’t many votes to be had there,” he says. “Politicians from all parties just haven’t cared enough about their capital city and they stood by in the Celtic Tiger years and allowed it to deteriorate.
“A lot of Dublin residents don’t want to go into the city centre because, in fairness, the Spars in the suburbs are just as good as the ones in the city centre. I mean, I wouldn’t travel out to Raheny for a sliced pan and a few teabags. I’m always a bit concerned when my daughters go in to the shops, but you’re probably not that interested in their spending habits. Other cities have managed to convert their centres into tourist theme parks, and made them unpleasant and overpriced for locals and tourists alike. Dublin has a long way to go on that score, thank fuck.”
It’s a view shared by Tom Coffey, manager of the Five Lamps pub on Amiens St, who goes on to talk about other things. “The inner-city of Dublin has been the victim of apartheid for a long time. It’s falling apart at the seams and the visibility of people who work in the IFSC and live around Dublin 1 but don’t bother their holes trying to integrate into its existing communities is increasing all the time.
“It’s stupid and reckless to put so many overpriced, two beds for transients just waiting to move out to the suburbs in the heart of the capital’s communities. It is very tough for businesses to survive in that kind of environment and it makes Dubliners feel that the state wants them to get out of the area as quickly as possible.
“When you see businessmen and women everywhere and all kinds of anti-social behaviour, is it any wonder why the families move out to the suburbs?”
Frank Magee is especially concerned about the proliferation of large office blocks in Dublin 1.
And he should know. The former CEO of Dublin Tourism — who held the role for 21 years until his retirement in December — believes it has “a hugely detrimental effect” on tourism in Dublin.
“It beggars belief that you have three thousand offices within a short distance of the Custom House, one of our greatest buildings. You have tourists wandering in that area — a place that should be leaving lasting memories for them — and instead they’re seeing people strung out after working a 14 hour day or glumly eating a damp sandwich on their five minute lunchbreak in broad daylight. Those are not the kind of images they should be leaving the city with.
“The problem stems from the fact that we don’t feel ownership of our capital. Residents’ taxes aren’t redirected to Dublin City Council and that leads to a lack of local governance. You see the kind of money invested in the upkeep of public areas in places like Howth and Monkstown. That’s because the people there are the people who matter. People in the media keep talking about feral children in the inner-city, which I think leads to the idea in the corridors of power that it is largely populated by some kind of new human-animal hybrid species. They reason that, well, you don’t see hanging baskets on the savannah, do you?”
But it would be unfair to blame all the problems on office workers. Tony Duffin, director of one of the best regarded “low quality, quick service” sandwich shops in the city, O’Brien’s on Abbey Street, says he understands why there’s such widespread concern about the number of office workers in the inner city.
“Of course there are problems, no-one’s going to deny that, but the offices are based where they are needed most. Historically, Dublin 1 has been one of the poorest parts of the country so it’s no surprise why there are so many offices here. Who was going to complain about the destruction of their local communities – the residents? Sher who’d listen to them? What do we do — ship the problem elsewhere? I can’t see the people in Blackrock standing for it.”
For Tom Coffey, that’s exactly what should be done. “We have to follow the Dutch model where offices are sited well away from tourist zones, in industrial estates for instance. The load should be shared throughout the city and not just in the centre.”
The importance of Dublin and the surrounding counties is evidenced by the fact that almost two in every three holidaymakers spent at least one night in this region last year but, as Ciara Sugrue, a sensible lady we met in a bakery, points out, the city’s attraction is slipping. “In 2006, Dublin was the sixthmost- visited European capital,” she says. “Four years later, and it’s slipped to 11th. We’re up against very strong competition.
“That’s why we need to forget about tourism in the capital, starting with the obsession with tourism as an economic model. Other cities have worked out how to actually produce things, rather than just services. We simply haven’t done that.”
Cathal O’Connell, who runs the Good Bits pub on Beresford Place, says it is difficult to run a business in an environment where anti-social problems are so prevalent.
“It’s not just the Friday night after-work crowd,” he says, “It’s middle-aged men over for the rugby who aren’t at work and are coming into our pub and trying to snort lines of coke or falling over the bags they’ve left lying around. It’s endemic in this area.
“I just don’t think the area is policed as well as it should be — although I’m seeing more guards on the streets in recent weeks. Might it be something to do with Elizabeth and Obama coming here?”
Chief Supt Pat Leahy rejects such suggestions outright. A self described hardliner, he has been charged with bringing order to the north-inner city.
“The situation has improved greatly in 18 months,” he says. “There have been 5,000 less crimes in that period because we are cracking down hard on any anti-social behaviour.
“Our officers are constantly on the streets and we work closely with businesses to reduce crime. Every incident, no matter how small, is investigated. We take a zero-tolerance approach to public order offences, whether it’s drinking on the street, harassing passers-by, public urination — you name it.”
Leahy, based in Store Street, is adamant that the situation has improved: “We have worked very hard to greatly improve a very challenging situation. There is a high proportion of offices and tourist hotels and hostels in this part of Dublin and that can lead to problems when you get people congregating at street corners, but we have certainly made our presence felt over the past year and a half and you find fewer people with social problems loitering than before.
“Ask any householder in the area — they’ll have noticed the improvement.”
As if to prove his point, several backpackers on Talbot Street recognise him as he walks by and respectfully greet him as “Chief ” in a variety of languages. The policeman is also well regarded by those such as local resident Breen who believe his hardline approach is essential for Dublin’s recovery.
***This is an edited version of a piece that originally featured in the Irish Independent, May 11, 2011. Some names, places, and prejudices have been changed***