Meeting Room and the Dublin anti-drugs movement of the 1980's

Anti drugs protest in Dublins North Inner City around 1994I recently attended the showing of 'Meeting Room,' a new documentary about the Concerned Parents Against Drugs movement of the 1980's in Dublin. It tells the story of how the tenants of a couple of Dublin flat complexes mobilized to drive heroin dealers out of their estates and how the state then suppressed that movement as it began to spread to other areas of the city. The screening was part of the Jameson Dublin Film Festival and several of those who had participated in the documentary were there to watch film and contribute to the discussion with the film makers afterwards.

For international readers I'll start with a brief background to Concerned Parents Against Drug's.  CPAD emerged in the early 1980's out of Hardwick street flats in Dublin's north inner city (just off the top of Parnell Square) and Teresa's Gardens (near the Coombe hospital) in the south inner city. The process was initiated by local women concerned with the threat of heroin to their children (both the direct threat of addiction and because dirty needles were being left lying around). Due to the threats of physical retaliation by drug dealers the movement soon came to be headed up by a mostly male leadership that the dealers would be more fearful of. Dealers were told to give up dealing or move out, if they failed to move out they were physically evicted. After its initial success in driving dealers out the Irish state identified CPAD as a threat and considerable police resources were deployed to smash the organisation up to and including prosecutions in the non-jury Special Criminal Court of key activists.

Both communities are among the most marginalized in the city, indeed that of the north inner city of which Hardwick street is a part was what I mentioned in my blog posting of a couple of weeks back 'thoughts on class definition, community and exclusion.' I was interesting that in the film n relation to policing, Tony Gregory (a local TD elected in large part because of his involvement in the movement), used the same term I had used in what was his last TV interview. He said the goal of the police was to contain the community, not to prevent crime within the community; they pretty much turned a blind eye to open heroin dealing, but sought to insulate the rest of society from the problem.

I'm actually no fan of film being used to tell the story of struggles as in my experience it is far too easy to tell a very partial and unrepresentative version of a story while leaving the impression with your audience that they have seen the full facts. Film tends to be 'believable' even if the reality is that you are seeing the unrepresentative 2% that didn't end up on the cutting room floor. And I've seen first hand how manipulative editing can turn a few seconds clipped out of context into the complete opposite of what was actually said. Lay on top a dramatic narrative to tell the viewer what to interpret from a few images and you can turn reality on its heads as Paul William's recent mockumentary on Shell to Sea demonstrated.

From that point of view I liked the approach to telling the CPAD story that 'Meeting Room' took. There was no narration and apart from the interviews with two journalists, one of whom made hostile programs about CPAD at the time, the only context setting was a few frames of old newspaper stories and a segment from that hostile RTE documentary broadcast at the time. Otherwise the film entirely consisted of people who were activists in that period talking directly about what they were involved in, what it felt like and what happened to them. As such it was impossible to come away with the impression that you now knew the story in its entirety, rather you had to be aware of the fragmentary nature of what you had been told. To me this is a positive rather than a negative.

To declare an interest, one of the documentary makers Jim (James Davis) is an old friend who spent a day showing me around Berkley and Oakland during the Bay area stop of my North American speaking tour two years back. I remember him talking of the project back then, although I think it was only at the planning stage. We certainly discussed the difficulty of getting people to talk on camera about some of the more controversial aspects of CPAD. Having seen the finished product they certainly succeeded in getting some excellent interviews, including people talking about the most difficult area of the campaign, the links with the (illegal) Irish Republican Army - probably (but far from the entire reason) why the state moved so strongly against CPAD.

Right near the start of the film the Jesuit priest (Jim Smyth) who was involved in forming the Committee in Hardwick street explains how he first approached the Workers Party (connected to the Official IRA) before then approaching Christy Burke (Sinn Fein councilor who had served time as a member of the Provisional IRA) because he understood that the dealers needed something to scare them off from threatening activists. The need arose because in Smyth's words the dealers put “the message got around that it would be dangerous to interfere in the business that was going on .. the word shooting was mentioned". This was the first time I'd heard this expressed so frankly on camera, as Jim said in the Questions & Answers afterwards "you take what you get in these interviews and Farther Smyth was kind enough to give it to us .. because no one had said that before that the provos .. expressed that they would be supportive."

In his book Pushers Out: The Inside Story of Dublin's Anti-Drugs Movement on the anti-heroin movement of the 1990's (review) Andre Lyder explains the need for the similar connection that existed during the 90's in the same sort of terms. Indeed it's one of the reasons why this sort of movement was possible in Dublin and can't necessarily by copied elsewhere. There is perhaps a distant relevance with my recent blog on the Shanghai massacre of 1927 when the left was crushed by armed gangsters (dealers in Opium, from which heroin is manufactured) who thought little of turning machine guns on demonstrations made up mostly of women and children.  The Italian mafia carried out at least one similar massacre of left workers in Sicily.

If perhaps the implication of armed defense was needed the reality was that the work of the campaign was not that of a few paramilitaries 'sorting the problem out' but mobilizations of hundreds of the people living in the affected areas. When evictions happened human chains passed the furniture from hand it hand along the landings, down the stairwells and along the street to when the furniture would be piled for collection. Accused dealers were often given the option of turning up to the mass meetings that preceded evictions in order to defend themselves. Journalist Padric Yates refers to these in the film as 'peoples' courts' and the film includes some footage of a women defending her son at one such court which captures the intensity of the experience.  This aspect probably alarmed the state at least as much as the connections with paramilitaries.

This 'peoples court' tradition continued into the movement of the 1990's, around 1995 I took part in one such mass meeting in the church in Sean Macdermott street that preceded a march on the houses / flats of a number of local dealers, the dark and grainy photo above was one of a few I took that evening. Around this time I published the article Legalise it! in Workers Solidarity 43 which carried a couple of articles related to the movement. It actually argues against the "de-criminalisation of heroin dealing" for anyone who is getting worried but distinguishes between this and hash or MDMA. I knew enough people around the movement of the 90's to know that many, if not all of them, made a similar distinction in practice if not in theory! Actually in practice the meetings in the North Inner City also tended towards the same distinction, I recall somebody getting up to say their son was only dealing hash and this being accepted at the one I attended. Attitudes were different elsewhere, sometimes very different, particularly in northern Ireland where in 1996 the IRA killed a number of ecstasy dealers. (WSM statement from the time)

In the 90's the perceived defense from the dealers wasn't simply paramilitaries but also included, at least in some areas, local bank robbers. One of the main organizers of the movement in Teresa's Gardens during the 1980's, John 'Wacker' Humphries, who was to be eventually jailed for a year by the Special Criminal Court, was targeted in December 1984 by the Irish Independent in an article headed 'Ex-cons head anti-drugs crusade' because of a (then) 13 year old conviction for armed robbery. Wacker is one of the main voices in the film telling the story of the movement in the south inner city including the occupation of 'Ma Bakers' house. Ma Baker was a particularly notorious dealer and the guards reacted to the occupation by  storming the house and beating those they caught inside.

The main family behind the heroin dealing in the city in the 1980's were the Dunnes but before they had become household names after TV exposure I remember my granny who lived near Teresa's Gardens talking to my parents about how she found it very suspicious how much meat their mother would buy in the butchers every week. Teresa's Gardens is to one side of the Rialto crossroads, Dolphin House across from where my granny lived on Church Avenue is the other side. As a very young child before my grandfathers death (and before the heroin epidemic) I remember him bringing us to walk in the 'fields' (waste ground that has now been developed) beside Dolphin House, possibly the same fields where some of the women who founded the movement talk of coming across junkies injecting themselves in the groin while they were out jogging. The area went into steep decline during that period, most infamously with the last bank at the main crossroads moving out and the premises being taken over by an undertakers. House break ins were very common, my granny had her wedding ring stolen in one shortly after my grandfathers death. I also remember her talking of how old people collecting their pension were supposedly having X's chalked on their backs in the post office to mark them out for being mugged as they made there way home.

The damage done the Dunnes moved to a big house up the mountains above Stepaside, I remember my mother pointing that out on family outings to Glencree on Sunday afternoons. I lived in Eugene street which borders Teresa's Garden's for a year in the late 1980's, at that stage the area was very derelict and even the corner shops kept only the most basic of stocks. Since then during the property boom of the Celtic Tiger there was a lot of regeneration, (particularly of Fatima) which transformed Cork street and Rialto. This was perhaps the high tide of the property boom, as that tide runs out and mass unemployment grows once more will the bad old days return? The slashing of regeneration funds and funding for the groups that make up the Canal Communities suggests this is not only possible but that the state has already moved once more to a strategy of containment referred to by Gregory.

Canal Communities anti-cuts protest Dublin 2009

Around 400 people attended the screening including many of those interviewed and others involved in the movement at the time or the later movement of the 1990's. As such it had something of the atmosphere of the Lost Revolution book launch although not quite so intense. I recorded the 20 minute questions and answer session that followed the film on my phone, the questions were a curious mixture of technical ones from film makers and opinions on the movement from those who where involved.

I had gone with a group of people whom I often do campaigning work with although none of whom had a direct connection with that movement or the one of the 1990's. The majority thought the film excellent although two interesting criticisms were made which I discuss below.

A few felt the film had not been political enough, that it hadn't gone into the political situation or evaluated the lessons from the movement sufficiently. To an extent though this is what I liked about the film for the reasons I explain in the opening paragraphs. I'm suspicious of films that try and pretend to tell the whole story of very complex situations. This almost always involves visual trickery as, even with a constant narration, your unlikely to get more than 6,000 words of explanation in during an hour. Compare that to the (minimum) of 60,000 words that must be in Andre Lyder's book (its probably longer) and you can see how film can only hope to provide a snippet and how the implication of doing more than this is a problem. Indeed its quite possible there are almost as many words in this blog post as there were spoken in the entire film.

What film can do well though is give you a sense of a movement or moment as those involved saw it. And really apart from giving the bare bones of the story (with some added frankness about the actual rather than invented role of paramilitaries) this was what made the film worthwhile. It's one thing to read quotes from people, it's another thing to hear and see them describing situations. That carries a lot more nuance and emotion that is often lost in the dryness of written text.

A second and perhaps deeper criticism of the film was that although the movement was initiated and mostly made up of women the story is largely told by men. A couple of the women I was with commented on that aspect of it. The film makers appear to have tried to balance this, several women are interviewed, some at length, but you do have a feeling that this is a deliberate attempt at balance, it feels a little forced. The core of the story is told for the most part by the men with the women's contributions for the most part adding colour to that story.

It's hard to know if this is simply a reflection of what happened within the movement, which is in itself the story of an initially women led movement rapidly becoming led by men for the reasons already discussed. Or if it's because of the particular focus in the film on the physical side of the movement and the role of the paramilitaries. Or a combination of both. The only thing I'm aware of that specifically addresses the role/impact on the movement of women is the article 'Mothers against drugs, communities outside the state' in RAG 3 which unfortunately is not yet online.  From memory I think that is in any case about the movement of the 1990's rather than 1980's. I could be wrong as it's over a year since I read it, as I recall it mostly describes the way involvement the movement empowered the women involved and saw many radically change their lives in many other aspects.

The third criticism that could be made and which arises in the discussion afterwards relates to the first (and my defense of that aspect) and that is the number of additional areas that the film could have covered. Who were the politicians, judges and cops responsible for the repression of CPAD and what do they have to say about their role today? How did the movement of the 1980's relate to the 1990's and what if any lessons were learned. For the curious this is discussed in some of the articles Workers Solidarity published during the movement of the 1990's. I think the producers are correct in suggesting these questions and others are essentially for another film, try and tell too much of a story in a limited time period and you end up telling none of it.

Overall though I'd highly recommend the film, in particular for group showings in a neighborhood setting. It's political 'lightness' is probably a plus in that context as it says a lot about militancy, exclusion, poverty, the media and policing without ever being in your face ideological. The story is very specific to Dublin conditions but it also contains many universal elements that will be recognizable anywhere and whose implications extend outside the specific issues around heroin.

You can now watch Meeting Room on ImDB


Recording of 20 minute questions and answer session that followed the film.  BTW the audio is stored on my Wuala account, please let me know if you have problems with it as this is something of an experiment.

Meeting Room intro from Cathedralmound on Vimeo.

 

Comments

I read your article. I was

I read your article. I was very lnterested in particular the article on ma baker and her sons, would of liked to have read more on her story and what became of her.

  


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