Stretched to the Limit: Policing in Dublin’s North-East Inner- City

two Garda Cars parked outside the GPO Museum
Dr Eunan Dolan
Eunan Dolan has over 40 years of experience with An Garda Síochána, finishing his career as a Detective Superintendent at Store Street station in the North-East Inner-City. He completed a professional doctorate at the University of Portsmouth in 2016.


two Garda Cars parked outside the GPO Museum

Garda Irish police cars outside the GPO in O’Connell Street. ©iStock-1294573364



Policing has many different and specialised functions such as one sees in police procedural dramas on television or one reads about in books. This article is not about that type of policing, rather it is about the mundane policing of foot patrols and community engagement which is, in fact, what the vast majority of policing actually is. This article is informed by research I carried out in the mid- 2010s, when also working as a serving police officer. This article attempts to show how policing in Dublin’s North-East Inner-City is perceived by the residents and businesses in the area. It is set out as follows – a short description of the NEIC followed by a theoretical discussion of policing as a public service. I will then present a select number of views and opinions on the policing of the area from the police themselves and the various communities in the area. These interviews will be used to give as representative a view as possible in a short article. Finally, issues raised in the interviews will then be explored and discussed further in the closing section.



The NEIC of Dublin presents the Garda Síochána with a significant policing challenge. The city centre is a cultural landmark; the site of protests and marches; an area with a very high footfall of pedestrians; and a hub for transport routes with all the traffic this entails, both public and private, running through it. Within the boundaries of Dublin Postal District 1, all facets of modern urban life can be observed from extreme poverty to extreme wealth.

It will be assumed that fairness and equity are necessary for the provision by the State of a public good such as policing. It is against this backdrop that this article sets out to assess the perception of the fairness or otherwise of the distribution of policing as a public good in the north inner city of Dublin by the communities in the area and, if this distribution can be explained by the effect of external power on the Garda Síochána policing the area. This article is premised on the concept that external power, though intangible, has an effect on how policing is carried out. It will be argued that this power resides primarily in groups with the most social capital. Power is a capacity whose workings are not easily observed. However, the existence of external power can be deduced from the outcomes achieved by certain groups in society.

Policing in the north inner city raises issues of fairness, proportionality and justice for the police  managers in the area. They have to deal with huge demands on the service in an era of increasing  resource shortages initially caused by the austerity programmes of the early 2000s. Conditions of all public sector workers suffered as a result of this austerity which, it would appear, has led to public jobs being less attractive to prospective job seekers thereby exacerbating the resource shortage. Shortages
in other public services such as health are often very visible due to the much published issue of patients on trollies in emergency wards. However, such shortages in policing as a public good are not so apparent especially in the short term. Policing is part of what Barlow and Hickman-Barlow describe as the “political economy whereby political and economic institutions are integrally intertwined.”1 This leads them to claim that “the methods by which the police seek to secure the social order are largely shaped by a particular character of the political economy in operation at that time.”2

Academic research has indicated that the delivery of a police service is circumscribed by external power. That power may be embedded in the structure of Western society which, Brogden and Ellison contend, is divided in a way that affects policing because “…such societies [are] characterised by deep structural
and (increasing) economic inequalities exacerbated by the fiscal crisis,”3 which begs the question ‘how can the police act, other than to sustain these fissures?’ Manning has questioned the function of public policing by asking: “if democracy rests on equality, justice and basic rights and responsibilities what role
do the police play in shaping them?”4

As power is an abstract concept, it is hard to quantify it in any meaningful way. Morriss describes that the effects of power can be shown by decisions made or not made (in this case by local Garda Management) explore whose agenda benefits?5 This is the only way that a comparison of the relative power of different groups power can be gauged. Therefore, how policing as a public good is delivered could be an indication of the relative power of the different groups that make up communities of the north inner city and, as a consequence, explain, to some extent, how policing is delivered.



The dilemma faced by police managers in the NEIC is basically how the policing resources are allocated to both the business area of the city and the residents. In order to assess this distribution, quotations6 are taken from the author’s professional doctoral research.7

A senior police manager describes policing in the NEIC as:

“a competition between doing the right thing on the ground in terms of policing and doing what is required and what is expected. Some of it is probably coming from outside, they are probably responding to some of the media reports and the subsequent questioning by politicians –you know- that suggest…. that the likes of O’Connell Street is unsafe…The engagement by the police is quite significant… There have been over 14,800 stop and searches within the area over the last eleven-and-a-half months, which is a huge figure. So there is no doubt there is a consistent engagement with people who are engaging in, whether it is drug-treatment, drug-taking, or drug-buying and whatever is going on up there…The pressure comes on the police to deal with a problem that is not a policing issue, there are elements to it, the drug dealing, absolutely, and that must be dealt with, but the underlying issue here is, not a police issue, but we are still under pressure to deal with it, above everything else, we get the pressure to deal with…Provide a unilateral policing response, which went against my better judgement, I would prefer not to have done it… I know that wasn’t going to solve the problem. It was going to solve the problem, for me, in my local area and for some of the businesses in my local area and God -knows they deserved a bit of relief from it. Absolutely I make no bones about that, but it came to the point where either I was going to be removed, the Super around here were going to be removed…. At some stage someone was going to look for a scapegoat for this…. Despite the fact that the evidence showed it was not a police problem”8

A different senior police officer describes how they approach policing in the area, apparently equating low level problems in one area with serious crime incidents in another:

“The problems in O’Connell Street are very low level, low impact stuff – it is not major stuff. But whereas if you look at the other side of the district, where there has been literally a huge number of murders
over a period of time, … Whether it is a career influencing situation – if I didn’t cover O’Connell Street, you know, I would argue, if I didn’t do the same in Sheriff Street, and if there was an increase in major crime down there then the same could be said for that as well.”


A Garda describes why they think they are on the beat:

“in O ‘Connell Street and all the areas uptown, because people from so-called good areas of Dublin or Ireland go through there, and people like that have the influence in the country, they don’t want to see drug dealers or drug addicts hanging around in the streets. Whereas nobody has any real reason to visit Sheriff Street, nobody cares what goes on there”

A clerical officer in the police station:

“Correspondence from the businesses would go directly to the superintendent and they themselves would draft a reply, whilst other correspondence will be sent
to a sergeant and the superintendent would not see it, unless it was about a particularly serious matter.”

This divide, at a bureaucratic level, seems to represent an inbuilt bias towards a certain section of the community “because the business community have a louder voice.” This interviewee continued to describe the process by which this happens:

“… for the businesses, they would normally be thrown to the superintendent to look at” (referring to post trays in the district office) “for the other people, it would go more to the inspectors to be sent to a sergeant, but the superintendent would rarely see these letters.”

Business Owners and Representatives

The views of the business community include those of representatives and former
representatives of city centre business organisations and the views of an independent small business owner. A prominent figure in the business community was able to describe the Garda response to problems in the O’Connell Street area as “excellent”. Whilst a CEO of a city centre business organisation, describing Garda operations in the city centre uses the words: “excellent” and “very successful”. This interviewee was able to say that “I think that what we have to say does feed into the decision-making process”. This person envisaged their organisation as having a future role in changing legislation on begging.

A CEO of another business organisation describes having discussions with senior
officers in a very “frank manner” when they were “pushing very hard for something like Spire” (Operation Spire was a previous Garda Operation focussed on O’Connell Street. At the time this research was being carried out, a different operation named Operation Boardwalk was under way with basically the same aims). The interviewee said that they had “a part in getting Operation Spire under way.”

A view of the spire on O'Connell street from a low angle looking up. It is darkened and cloudy around the rest of the sky

Dublin’s Spire ©iStock-1294573364


Describing ‘Operation Spire’, this interviewee used the words “bloody marvellous.” A small business owner also deems ‘Operation Spire’s a success, whilst describing the situation that gave rise to it, as “scandalous.”

The powerful elite in Ireland is comprised of people, who, amongst other things, “play golf together”.9 The “other things” referred to may be the social opportunities some people have in society not available to everyone, when they refer to having: “spoken to senior ranks … in a very frank manner.” This person also said that “it would be rare to launch full attacks at public meetings.” The implication of this is that
personal access by a certain class of person to senior Garda management could have an effect on the deployment of Garda resources.

Community Representatives

Meanwhile, an anti-drug worker had this to say:

“They will use the media and every politician that they can. Then we cop… The guards are up there for the business community because the business community, they have bigger voices… They get more attention than we do, as community people I believe… it doesn’t matter if it is true or not, in our story, in our belief we feel that the Gardaí give more time to the business community because they have access to TDs, city councillors, media… that they use. We have the same access but we don’t use that access.”

A community activist was very forthcoming about how they perceived policing in their community:

“Some people would refer to it as selective policing, I would describe it as reactive policing in that, the policing presence now and I suppose looking at the last ten to twelve years, particularly in Sheriff Street/ Seville Place area, is practically non-existent, unless…. there is a shooting or some serious incident. Policing has been on an invisible scale. There has been a level of non-policing. It is the old – ‘left
to their own devices situation’… It has become kind of endemic now by kids that are… two, three, four, five years of age – six…are looking at the damage that is being done on a daily basis by the thirteen, fourteen, fifteen-year-olds, and it has become a kind of cycle now, especially, in the Sheriff Street stretch. You can do anything you want to do, to whoever you want to, what you want – there will be no comeback. There will be no charge either police wise or Dublin City Council wise…The case we put forward at that meeting and the pleas that we made went nowhere and there was huge anger…. We weren’t surprised,
the attitude is a sure, ah fuck, it is only Sheriff Street… That police don’t give a fuck!”


A professional in the area describes how, school children were exposed to drug dealing on the way to school:

“Very hard to keep our enrolments up… The policing situation is having an impact on it because, drug-selling is so open here, and it is so open. I was coming back from a meeting and a parent of one of the pupils in school, he said:’ hi-ya [teacher’s name] as he was selling drugs to somebody, to some young girl. It is just like they are passing some milk or borrowing sugar…because I think it is Sheriff Street. I think there is a group kind of attitude by everyone in society that we should just be left; we are reckless, we
are lawless down here, but these were four-year-old children… Someone could have died here… I don’t think that would be happening in the better off areas…I don’t know if there is a bigger plan in
action… We are prime real estate here… Is there something bigger at play…? And the letting the place go down in a state of chaos, and then say, it is better just to move things out and break down the community, and send it off in different directions, schools and housing.”

A youth worker’s comment encapsulates the problem and a part of the solution:

“Visibility of guards would act as a deterrent to some young people. Any kind of visible presence that says you can’t get away with this, you know, everybody knows at the end of the day you won’t get
away with it. But the young people don’t see that. They see… made two-hundred quid today, or maybe three-hundred quid today… will make the same tomorrow.”

The on-street issues in Dublin’s north inner city are the results of years of neglect and a failure of other agencies to deal with the issues of poverty, drug addiction and homelessness. The situation facing the Gardaí in the NEIC could be described, as Bittner puts it, “almost anything can be constructed as a police
problem”10 and, as James further comments that “[t]he police deliver a wide range of services that involve something that ought not be happening and about which someone had better do something now.”11 This could refer to the way the Gardaí try to police the business area.

On the other hand, the policing response to the residential area should be, as Bittner writes, “in almost all instances the police service is a response to citizens’ demands … this citizen demand is a factor of extraordinary importance for the distribution of a police service and the fact that somebody did call the cops is in itself cause for concern”12. Conversely, this could describe how the residents perceive the Gardaí’s lack of response to their calls. They are not important enough to really matter.



Basic resource allocation is what is in question here for the police manager. This issue does not involve redistribution rather; it operates in the pareto optimal13 space of a limited resource. Therefore, decisions about its allocation have to be made. According to the first senior officer quoted above, policing in the north inner city is “a competition between doing the right thing on the ground in terms of policing and doing what is required and what is expected”. Policing activity in the previous eleven-and a- half months (prior to the interview) which involved 14,800 drugs stop and searches was described by them as an area of concern because they believe “without a shadow of a doubt you are going to break it [human rights].”

The officer has fears about taking policing into a risky area regarding the human rights of people in the city centre which arise in the context where, “[t]he pressure comes on the police to deal with the problem that is not a policing issue.” This begs the question – why do the police risk breaching a person’s human rights over an issue that is not essentially a police one? What group of people in society are that powerless that the Garda Síochána can contemplate such an approach?

The type of policing described could fit in with what Robert Reiner describes as the police role in the reproduction of social order.14 According to Reiner, “general and specific order” are “simultaneously reproduced in all social orders.”15 The specific order that is reproduced is the “distributions of advantage and power benefiting particular interests.” 16

Dublin’s north inner city has historically been one of the most deprived areas in the city. As it is adjacent to one of the major business areas in the city, there will always be pressure on the Gardaí to adequately police the area in a time of reduced resources. This is a matter completely beyond their own control. However, how they use the resources at their disposal raises basic questions regarding what society expects from their police service. All decisions have consequences, some unintended.

One of the unintended consequences could be that when people from the residential areas travel to the business area they see a huge effort to stamp out anti-social behaviour—drug use, public drinking of alcohol, unruly behaviour and loitering—by the police. They cannot help but notice that these types of behaviours do not attract the same attention in their own residential areas. This can lead to the impression that the police service they receive is one of containment so as to keep the problems where they will not attract too much attention. Even though the consequence is unintended it does not mean that they are unforeseeable and this has been the de facto situation for a very long time. If the perception of some of the people interviewed is that policing of the residential areas of the district is one of containment rather than engagement, then the following outcomes can be expected.

Children’s access to an illicit drug free environment is not possible. There are knock on effects for their life chances – restricted education opportunities or a pathway to serious crime. As the neglect of these areas continues, the illegal drug industry could become integral to the economy of the area and, as a result, the Gardaí become an economic threat to some in the community thereby making community engagement more difficult and contributing to the unravelling of civil society. The illegal drug world is notorious for its feuds. The north inner city has suffered disproportionally in a much publicised recent feud with a significant number of young men murdered or in jail doing long sentences. Perhaps one of the most insidious effects of containment rather than engagement is the rise of drug debts and intimidation in the community and the devastation this causes families as they struggle to pay off their children’s drug debts.

On the other hand, people have a right and a necessity to make a living, to go about their business in a civilised and safe environment. Failure to adequately police the business area could lead to business closures, loss of jobs and loss of faith in the city as a place to invest in. The city streets are part of our cultural heritage and the Gardaí have a responsibility to ensure that they can be enjoyed by everyone. However, as shown above, there are serious risks attached if an overzealous policing approach is taken that is not cognisant of human rights and a proportionate response.



This essay is based on the perceptions of people who are in the police themselves or have interactions with the police. It would be hard to characterise what has been said about policing in the north inner city as being fair, equitable or proportionate. Similarly, it is hard to blame the police in the area for this situation as they are faced with policing without adequate resources to meet all the demands and, at the same time, having to deal with legitimate and powerful demands on its resources.

The solution to this issue of the power differential is a societal challenge that cannot be found in media fear-mongering and political soundbites. Ultimately, it is a question of the type of policing that people want. One based on welfare and justice or one based on the neoliberal ideas of crime control. The former would require a huge cultural shift in Irish society. But what is clear from the interviews is that the police service as a whole, not just the north inner city of Dublin, is ill-equipped to deal with its agenda being set externally.

1 David E. Barlow and Melissa Hickman Barlow, ‘A Political Economy of Community Policing’, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management 22, no. 4 (1999): 646.
2 Barlow and Hickman Barlow, 647.
3 Graham Ellison and Mike Brogden, Policing in an Age of Austerity: A Postcolonial Perspective (Wolverhampton: Routledge, 2013), 104.
4 Peter K. Manning, Democratic Policing in a Changing World (London: Paradigm Publishers, 2010), 104.
5 Peter Morriss, Power: A Philosophical Analysis, 2nd ed. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002).
6 These quotations are representative of the research and in line with the findings
7 Eunan Dolan, ‘An Exploratory Study to Assess Perceptions of the Power Dividend: Does External Power Affect the Fairness of Public Policing in Dublin’s North Inner City’ (Professional Doctorate Thesis, Portsmouth, University of Portsmouth, 2016).
8 At the time of this interview a policing operation named Operation Boardwalk was underway. Operation Boardwalk was an operation designed to provide increased high-visibility patrolling of the Liffey Boardwalk, Bachelor’s Walk and Eden Quay.
9 Perry Share, Mary P. Corcoran, and Hilary Tovey, A Sociology of Ireland, 4th ed. (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2012), 95.
10 Egon Bittner, ‘Florence Nightingale in Pursuit of Willie Sutton: A Theory of the Police’, in Aspects of Police Work (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990), 233–68.
11 Adrian James, ‘Forward to the Past: Reinventing Intelligence-Led Policing in Britain’, Police Practice and Research 15, no. 1 (2013): 1–14.
12 Bittner, ‘Florence Nightingale in Pursuit of Willie Sutton: A Theory of the Police’ cited in Tim Newburn, ed., Policing: Key Readings (Devon: Willan Publishing, 2005), 163.
13 Pareto optimality (also referred to as Pareto efficiency) is a standard often used in economics. It describes a situation where no further improvements to society’s well- being can be made through a reallocation of resources that makes at least one person better off without making someone else worse off.
14 Robert Reiner, ‘Policing a Post-Modern Society’, in Policing: Key Readings, ed. Tim Newburn (Devon: Willan Publishing, 2005).
15 Reiner, 166.
16 Reiner, 166.