Poverty is not the cause of gangland murders

First published in the Sunday Business Post 5 June 2016
Individual responsibility is being overlooked in a simplistic narrative

It was the Sunday night before Christmas 2004.

The phone call came through within minutes after 19-year-old Ryan Lee was shot in the right hip and the groin.

Since Eddie Ryan’s murder in the Moose bar in November 2000, the bar staff in the Limerick pubs would ring one another with warnings about the latest development in the gangland feud between the McCarthy-Dundons and the Keane-Collopys. Ryan’s death was the first of 20 gang-related murders in Limerick.

Lee was a barman who refused entry to Wayne Dundon’s 14-year-old sister. A furious Dundon put an imaginary gun to Lee’s head and said, “fuck you, you’re dead,” before leaving. Thirty minutes later Lee was shot.

Lee’s pub was five minutes from the pub I was working in. We closed the pub early.

When my shift was over that night in December, I cycled the 20-minute journey home through Limerick city, past many of the gang flashpoints.

I say all this by way of introduction. Entry into the national debate on Dublin gangland presupposes that you must be from a particular part of the city in order to express a view about why “gangland” has exploded in recent months. Inequality is the frequently cited reason as to why seven men have been murdered in 100 days.

Ryan Lee did not walk into the pathway of a bullet fired accidentally.

He was deliberately, coldly, brutally shot for having the audacity to refuse a minor entry into a pub.

A gun is an inanimate object. It does not have a mind of its own. It is a dead piece of metal without a conscience. In contrast, the person who picks up the gun makes the decision to pull the trigger. He has weighed up the possibilities and decided upon a particular course of action.

Dundon made the decision to threaten to kill Lee. He served five years of a seven-year sentence for that offence.

At no stage in his criminal trial did his defence team tell the court that Dundon did what he did because of inequality.

“Inequality made me murder him,” is not a defence in Irish criminal law. Nor is duress a defence to murder before the Irish courts.

When somebody purposely kills another because they are forced or compelled to do so by circumstances or the threats of another they will still be convicted of murder under Irish law.

Of course, choices are not made in a void.

Criminal choices are tempting in the absence of access to education, health, employment and housing. Gang violence thrives in areas with intergenerational poverty and social exclusion. Inequality incentivises crime.

The argument about individual responsibility is not to disregard the underlying relationship between deprivation and gangland.

Individual responsibility is not an isolated concept from societal responsibility.

The difficulty with the current debate is thus – focusing only on the underlying deep-seated issues of inequality alleviates individual intent.

It enables the public narrative that all the “bad” people live in the “bad” housing estates and that all the “good” people live in the “good” housing estates.

Gangland is portrayed in black and white terms with buckets of suppositions thrown in for good measure. This simplistic narrative allows us to justify to ourselves why people behave as they do. Poverty made them do it.

The system is to blame.

They had no other plausible financial choice but to do what they did.

All of this assumes that gangs only live and operate in poor areas. It does a disservice to families in the so-called bad housing estates who choose not to get involved in crime.

More than that, it lets so-called middle Ireland off the moral hook. As independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan told the Dáil last week: “Middle Ireland and wealthy Ireland have contributed to this also. They have also fuelled the drug trade and thus contributed to the murders and mayhem.”

The notion of individual responsibility is disregarded as an ideological fantasy of the right.

Inequality is not the reason why Middle Ireland buys recreational drugs. Nor is it the reason why men choose to ruthlessly murder a human being.

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