Pushers Out: the inside story of Dublin’s anti-drugs movement

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

Pushers Out: the inside story of Dublin’s anti-drugs movement
André Lyder
(Trafford, E19.50 paperback)
ISBN 1412050995
Despite the huge amount of attention given by the media to the impact of drug use, particularly heroin, on Irish life from the 1980s onwards, it has not received a great deal of attention from historians either in political or social terms. What André Lyder describes as ‘one of the most significant social movements to emerge from Dublin’s working class communities’ during the 1980s and 1990s has not been dealt with in any serious way by histories of late twentieth-century Ireland. Yet the impact that the explosion of heroin abuse in Dublin from the early 1980s has had on thousands of lives, particularly in Dublin, and its knock-on effect in terms of crime and social dislocation surely demand more analysis. Have historians been content with media perceptions of the anti-drugs movement? Almost from its inception that movement was caricatured and demonised as a front for republican paramilitarism and political ambition. Its participants were often depicted as little more than dupes of sinister background figures. Indeed, much of the reaction seemed, if anything, more sympathetic to those directly or indirectly involved in drug-dealing than to anti-drugs activists. Therefore André Lyder’s memoir of the anti-drugs movement is to be welcomed.
Lyder was a spokesperson for the Coalition of Communities Against Drugs (COCAD), an organisation that emerged in response to a new epidemic of heroin use during the mid-1990s. But he begins his account with the Concerned Parents Against Drugs (CPAD), who initially developed out of groups formed in reaction to the first wave of heroin abuse in Dublin’s north and south inner city during the early 1980s. A great deal of Lyder’s account deals with the hostile attitude of the media and state institutions to CPAD and later COCAD. He stresses that the movement emerged out of local frustration at the open and constant sale of drugs in areas such as St Teresa’s Gardens and the seeming inability or unwillingness of the Gardaí to prevent it. Added to this were the increasingly obvious effects of heroin on those who took it, the beginnings of the long list of deaths in the inner city from its use, and the sharp rise in violence and crime as addicts sought funds to pay for their habit.
From a very early stage the idea that the CPAD were criminal vigilantes ‘infiltrated’ or indeed simply controlled by Sinn Féin or the IRA gained currency and led to hostile media coverage. The reality was more complex. Initially only the independent TD Tony Gregory and Sinn Féin councillor Christy Burke showed support for the movement in the north inner city. The fact that both men lived there and were aware of the growing crisis of drug-dealing was first and foremost their motivation. Many of the Sinn Féin and IRA figures who subsequently became involved did so for similar reasons. Many commentators seemed to have difficulty grasping the fact that republicans living in the areas worst affected by heroin had the same concerns for their families as other residents. There is a sense, too, of the lack of comprehension by some critics of the movement of the reality of life in areas that were already by any standard socially deprived. Lyder’s impression, backed up by discussions with activists themselves, is that the anti-drugs campaign caused some confusion and soul-searching on the part of the republican movement.
Certainly Sinn Féin did gain politically in the longer term from its involvement, but as the only political force that was prepared to devote resources to support the movement this was also a reflection of the failure of others. The campaigners generally came from a far broader milieu than republicanism, with most completely new to any form of activism. Indeed, Lyder himself ran foul of Sinn Féin when he stood as an independent candidate in the 1997 general election. Other activists have been sharply critical of some aspects of Sinn Féin’s involvement. Ironically, what Lyder refers to as the ‘big bluff’, the idea that the anti-drugs movement was intrinsically connected to the IRA, did have some positive effects. Many drug-dealers and criminals, who showed little compunction in using violence against their rivals, were hesitant to use violence against anti-drugs activists because they feared that the IRA would retaliate.
Of course, elements within the anti-drugs movement did employ violent tactics on occasion, and Lyder explains the background to this. He is particularly scathing of the response of the Gardaí to the movement, accusing the force of employing harassment and brutality in its dealings with anti-drugs activists. Lyder argues that the force were more frightened by grassroots mobilisation in the inner cities and working-class estates than by drug-dealing and abuse, and he details numerous examples that should raise questions as to why that should be the case. Areas long neglected and deprived were of little consequence until heroin abuse spilled over into a crime wave in other parts of Dublin. Many of those who initially protested against drug-dealing also began to demand more resources and facilities for their communities and formed networks that continue to be active. Lyder’s perceptions are personal ones, and other activists would no doubt take issue with his impressions and conclusions. But as an account that gives voice to thousands of people who took to the streets for very basic and simple demands—that their areas and children be saved from heroin addiction (for little thanks but much abuse in return)—it is long overdue. It should also stimulate historians to examine this important popular movement.
Brian Hanley

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