Limerick shows result of misconceived policies

The fate of the third city demonstrates how division was supervised from the top, writes Vincent Browne

What has happened in Limerick over the last decade and a half tells us a lot about the policies pursued by governments during that time and the nature of our political culture.

A superb insight into this is available in Understanding Limerick: Social Exclusion and Change , edited and mainly written by UCC sociologist Niamh Hourigan.

Between 1996 and 2006 the population of the Limerick urban area expanded by 14 per cent, the labour force by 32 per cent and the number at work by 40 per cent. In the years 2000 to 2006 disposable income in Limerick city and county grew at a rate of 7 per cent per annum. By 2006 the Limerick area had the fourth highest standard of living in the country.

However, in 2000/01 the rate of both income poverty and consistent poverty in Limerick city was 50 per cent above the national average. Since 2002 Limerick city has ranked as the second most disadvantaged in socio-economic terms of the country’s 34 local authority areas.

In 2006 one of the electoral divisions in the city was the most disadvantaged of the country’s 3,400 electoral districts (this and the other socio-economic statistics used here are taken from an essay in the book by Des McCafferty).

Limerick is the most socially segregated of four cities studied (the others being Galway, Waterford and Cork). The degree of segregation is highest for the groups at either end of the social spectrum – the professional social class at one end, and unskilled workers at the other end.

Limerick has the highest proportion of social housing in the State: 42 per cent of all houses are social housing units.

One of the initiatives taken by a government that had the most devastating effects on the poorer areas of Limerick was the tenancy surrender initiative, which encouraged the more capable residents of social housing estates to surrender their tenancies for €5,000 and move to private accommodation.

This robbed the poorest areas of many of the most able people who had been giving leadership and confidence to their neighbours. And it was done by the Fine Gael-Labour government of 1982 to 1987. That turned out to have been a crucial turning point in the collapse of many deprived areas into criminality and hopelessness.

The loss and downsizing of major industries in the city was also crucial: Ferenka in 1979, Krups in 1998 and Dell downsizing recently are the best known examples. The areas of Moyross and Southill were the most devastated.

The impoverished estates – Moyross, Southill, St Mary’s Park, Ballinacurra Weston and others – have been marked by unemployment, lone parenthood, poverty, high rates of physical and mental health issues, ostracisation from mainstream society, environmental degradation, high rates of antisocial behaviour on the part of children and other behavioural problems with children. And then drugs and criminality.

In spite of its reputation, Limerick has a low crime rate. In the words of another contributor to the book, Ciarán McCullagh, Limerick is “a low crime city with a serious crime problem”. For many years until recently the murder rate was the highest in the country, arising largely from the family feuds that, unfortunately, have defined the city in the last decade. A few criminal gangs got to control some of the most deprived areas and did so through brutal violence, intimidation and the creation of a culture of fear which has ravaged the lives of the inhabitants. Allied to this has been the involvement of children in organised criminality; they have become the agents of fear in many areas, largely immune from any legal or social sanctions or deterrents.

This in turn has driven more of the coping people out of the areas, leaving, in part, the most vulnerable and dysfunctional. The book’s insights into how the culture of fear was created and maintained is the most illuminating part of the work along with its illumination of how involvement in crime, allied to the criminal gangs, became the most logical option for disaffected young people, boys and girls. For many of these young people, society offered them nothing at all. They were stigmatised because of where they came from, dismissed as “scumbags”, denied not just opportunities and options by the rest of society but, crucially, respect. Their only access to respect and status came through criminality, by joining in the “hard-man” culture, characterised by extreme violence and intimidation, and by association with the crime bosses, who were the role models.

It is not that nothing has been done for these areas over the last decade. In Moyross, particularly, there are signs of progress and hope. Gardaí have also had many successes and have poured a lot of resources into these estates with considerable success in convicting many of the crime bosses. But it has been far too little. In terms of child protection alone the record has been dismal.

And now the cutbacks are having ruinous effects – the removal of special needs teachers from the schools, the abandonment of the regeneration programme being the most telling. I will be returning to the themes and insights of this book again and probably again.

This column also appears in today's edition of The Irish Times