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30 years ago, Dublin was a crime-riddled joyrider's paradise

The damage being done with stolen cars in particular had the population terrified.

gerry smith Source: Gerry Smith/Youtube

DUBLIN’S FAIR CITY was anything but fair 30 years ago, it seems.

Papers released under the 30-year rule by the National Archives show that Ireland’s government was concerned at the rampant levels of crime being seen in the capital.

According to the garda crime report for 1984, Dublin had almost twice the crime rate of any other area of the country at that time, including Cork city, with a rate of 56.7 crimes per 1,000 population.

IMG_5216 Source: National Archives 2015/88/46

IMG_5219 Source: National Archives 2015/88/46

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pic2 Source: National Archives 2015/88/46

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Unfortunately 30 years ago government funds were at a premium (the recessionary nature of the times is a recurring trait of almost every entry of the released state papers). So the immediate response from the gardaí was to call on people to join the neighbourhood watch and be on the lookout for ne’er-do-wells as that was the cheapest option:

IMG_5160 Source: National Archives 2015/88/297

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An Irish Post editorial from 1983 gave a damning verdict on the crime apparently plaguing Dublin’s streets, in which the city was described as being the “most blighted and most dangerous of Europe’s small capitals”:

irish post Source: National Archives 2015/88/297

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Over a year following the publication of that editorial the International Welfare Association wrote a letter to Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in response to that editorial stating their intention to advise all their international members “to take their holidays in safer places” given the “uncontrolled crime on your streets”.

int welfare Source: National Archives 2015/88/297

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The problem of crime in the capital doesn’t seem to have been wholly localised to the November 1982 Fine Gael / Labour government of Garret FitzGerald either.

Notes released from specially convened government meetings in 1980 outline the various problems affecting the Dublin urban area at that time under the previous administration:

The Taoiseach opened the meeting by outlining the range of problems affecting Dublin and other urban centres – vandalism, squatting, delinquency, burglaries and break-ins, and itinerant begging.

The stealing of cars in particular appears to have been absolutely rampant in Dublin at the time, with 22,000 cars being stolen in 1982 alone.

Dublin City Council were so anxious about the stolen-cars-and-joyriding situation that they decided to call on the government to do something: 

IMG_5145 Source: National Archives 2015/88/297

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Joyriders, Noel Kennelly, and a lost petition

Joyriding, a problem that still remains today despite three decades of advances in vehicle-security, seems to have been something of a cause-célèbre in Dublin at the time, as can be seen from the following letter to Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald from April 1985:

20151204_142033 Source: National Archives 2015/88/663

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20151204_142453 Source: National Archives 2015/88/663

The problem with such joyriding was identified in the garda crime report for 1984 and was described as one that was being “tackled vigorously”.

However, the government found itself having to face the issue head on in the summer of 1983, in the wake of a unique campaign conducted by a Dublin man named Noel Kennelly.

Kennelly’s brother-in-law Peter Collins was killed at Kinsealy, Dublin in March 1983 by joyriders. Subsequently, in early May Kennelly approached the Department of Justice with a petition signed by 4,000 people from his locality imploring the department to increase the scale of punishment for joyriding offenders.

It wasn’t a simple request either – Kennelly had very specific ideas for how he thought the Road Traffic Acts as they stood needed to be amended to ensure those breaking the law were adequately punished.

20151204_142758 Letter from Garret FitzGerald to Noel Kennelly, 24 May 1983 Source: National Archives 2015/88/663

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20151204_142642 Source: National Archives 2015/88/663

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The problems began when the government failed to respond quickly enough to Kennelly’s initial petition. Part of this was he had spoken to the Department of Justice, who weren’t in fact responsible for the Road Traffic Act. That fell to the Department of the Environment.

The other problem was that the Department of Justice had actually lost the petition.

As Mr Kennelly’s case rumbled on for almost four months of tit-for-tat response and counter-response, his interactions with the government departments he had been in contact with began to get increasingly tetchy, to the extent that one of his latter missives was deemed “offensive” by the Taoiseach’s department in a memo.

Kennelly felt the government wasn’t doing enough. The government countered that there was nothing it could do.

20151204_142521 Source: National Archives 2015/88/663

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20151204_142553 Kennelly's press release and timeline of events Source: National Archives 2015/88/663

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In particular Kennelly wasn’t happy that the various government departments were sending him the same reply at the same time. The flip side of this is that the government itself felt that this was the professional thing to do given his Kennelly’s tragic circumstances.

The worry for the senior civil servants involved seems to have been that Kennelly intended to “embarrass” the Department of Justice. And given they lost his petition, they may have had good reason to be worried.

off1 Source: National Archives 2015/88/663

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off2 Memo to the Department of the Taoiseach describes Noel Kennelly's press release as being "offensive" Source: National Archives 2015/88/663

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“I feel the only legitimate complaint he has is that it did take some time for the Department to reply… However, this could be attributed to the fact that the original petition was mislaid,” reads an internal memo from the Department of the Taoiseach in September 1983.

Pic1 Source: National Archives 2015/88/663

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That final September memo also suggests a more conciliatory tone be taken in any further correspondence with Kennelly, given the government didn’t want to set him off again as his campaign had effectively “run out of steam”.

While Kennelly and the government may have ended at loggerheads, some good may have come from the dispute – two months later an amended Criminal Justice Bill was brought before the Oireachtas with specific provision being made for penalties for the offence of stealing a vehicle:

pic4 Source: National Archives 2015/88/663

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Read: Irish people really didn’t like paying for their tv licence 30 years ago

Read: Pornography being shown in pubs had the government in a fluster 30 years ago

See National Archives files 2015/88/46, 2015/88/297, and 2015/88/663

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