James Henson, Galina Fjodorova, Minister of State for European Affairs and Defence, Peter Burke, Linda Jo Quinn Westmeath County Development and Councillor Frankie Keena at the Athlone Drug Awareness meeting in the Shamrock Lodge Hotel last Thursday night. Photo: Paul Molloy.

Lack of garda presence and open dealing of drugs raised

A lack of gardai on the beat in Athlone and the open dealing of drugs in public areas were highlighted as big issues at a recent public meeting organised by the Athlone Drug Awareness Group.

Speaking at the beginning of the public meeting in the Shamrock Lodge Hotel on Thursday, May 25, Chairperson of Athlone Drug Awareness Group Cllr Frankie Keena said: “Athlone is not unique to this particular problem. This particular problem is in every town and village throughout the country.”

The Fianna Fáil councillor said that he knows of families who are being intimidated in the area and who had to put sheets of plywood down around their front door to prevent drug dealers from trying to enter. “It's causing concerns for those with these people living next door with people coming all hours of the day, all hours at night. And sometimes it's a quick sale, sometimes there's kind of arguments in the houses making a lot of noise and discomfort for residents so that is a problem."

The Athlone Drug Awareness Group was set up in 1996 and its main remit is to create awareness of the problem of substance misuse.

Cllr Keena continued: “The drug dealers are just laughing, in my eyes. They’re clapping their hands. They’re lapping up the demand for this particular product that they’re selling. They’re ruthless individuals.

“Also coming down to a local level we have crime gangs as well. We also have even teenagers who are being lured into it with the attractiveness of making a hundred/€200 in a couple of days.”

Speaking directly to local residents in attendance at the meeting Cllr Keena said: ”The residents need to take back your ownership of your estates, need to take back the ownership of Athlone which is a fabulous, fine, thriving town and we need to help and work closely with the statutory bodies, work closely with An Garda Siochana.

“There is a need for more gardai in this town... They’re not visible anymore and I’d like to see those people (Gardai) back on the street again to kind of give that reassurance,” stated Cllr Keena.

Linda Jo Quinn from Westmeath Community Development echoed Cllr Keena’s concerns in relation to the lack of garda presence in Athlone currently.

“There is a lack of resources at national level for the Gardai. We have four community gardai in Athlone which isn’t enough for the needs. We are sick of this and something has to be done today, not tomorrow.”

Linda Jo continued: “I work with a lot of communities in the area and I attend all their meetings and part of my role is to gather the issues and concerns from them. Every meeting I go to it’s the same thing ‘drug dealing is taking place outside my house, we contact the guards and nothing happens.’

"I got a call one Sunday morning. There’s dirty needles in an estate (on Easter Sunday) no one around to help this community so I did and got it sorted. I don’t normally work on a Sunday but what can you do when you get calls like this?”

Local residents in attendance on the night voiced concerns that a representatived of the gardai was not present at the meeting along with the high number of absences of local councillors and public representatives.

Treasurer of Athlone Drug Awareness Group Jim Henson added that much of what’s wrong with the drugs issue is related to policy issues.

“There’s a couple of alternative realities in Athlone that most people don’t know about and most people don’t want to know about it. We need to stand up and say to all our public reps and all of the people who have the ability to change policy ‘I don’t want to live in fear. I’m entitled for my children to go to school in safety.'”

Local businessmen Neil Bradbury and Liam Tutty expressed concerns over drug dealing that is regularly taking place outside public premises in the town.

Neil said: “We have people actively selling drugs (at) the old foot of the town bridge and they’re there, day in day out. It’s manic. They don’t even make an effort to hide it. We’ve been ringing the guards as well and there’s not much happening.”

Liam has a business based at the corner of Bridge and Strand Street and said that he has had to ring the guards seven days a week in some instances.

“These lads (drug dealers) aren’t moving slowly, they’re moving a lot faster than you’re moving (public representatives) It’s all well and good the beautification works that are happening in the town are amazing. You won’t be able to use them because they’ll be overrun.”

The old design college on Northgate Street and former Hammond Lane site in the Batteries were also earmarked as problem areas for public drug dealing.

Annette Hardiman who is the head of a local Community Employment Scheme commented on the effect that the drugs issue has on Athlone’s tourism. “The tourists are coming, they see the fight going on in the streets and they're not going to come back to Athlone or back to Ireland even. We depend on tourism even more so now.

“A lot of my caretakers would have issues with drug paraphernalia and needles and dirty needles and the big issue is to get them safely picked them up (and disposed of.) The council will not go to any private area. Even St Peter's church is classed as a private area, even though it's one of the main tourist attractions in the town.

“It was left to ourselves to make sure that we got rid of the needles and I don't think that's right when we have the county council and we have government funding,” concluded Annette.

Minister of State for European Affairs and Defence, Peter Burke, said that education must be prioritised along with rehabilitation.

Speaking about Garda numbers, the Minister said: From talking to the (Garda) Superintendent she has advised me in terms of the sergeant and former gardai that have been put into the community policing unit. It's very challenging in garda numbers because we've had a significant amount of retirements and people have left the force as well from about 2015 running at a 20% higher level.

Minister Burke continued: “There are 300 new recruits going in per quarter and hopefully that will have an impact in Athlone. Five gardai have been assigned from Mullingar in the last few months from Mullingar down to Athlone to strengthen the numbers but we do need to keep doing that.

Minister Burke also added that he met with a number of local business owners along with Cllr John Dolan recently and heard their concerns in relation to the prevalence of antisocial behaviour.

He said on foot of that he was assured by the Superintendent in Athlone that there are a number of cases now that are going before the courts in relation to this matter.

Following the public meeting, Cllr Keena will collate all the information received both from the events of the meeting and issues highlighted using an anonymous submissions box and pass on the information to Minister Burke and the local Garda Superintendent.