SERIOUS anti social behaviour is now a grave problem right in the middle of Ennis, according to a number of traders in the O’Connell Street area this week.
Several of them told the Clare Champion that preventing traffic from accessing the area has turned it into a haven for problematic behaviour, with violence, drug taking, alcohol abuse and public urination all rife at the moment.
Last weekend a video of a fight just in front of the O’Connell monument was widely viewed on social media, and several of the traders said that such incidents are relatively common now.
Despite being frustrated at what they say is happening around the most prominent street in Clare, several of the traders complimented the efforts of the Gardai.
However they are very critical of the Council for persisting with pedestrianisation of the area, claiming that it is unlikely to make any difference to the spread of Covid, while it has led to a serious increase in the level of anti social behaviour in the area.
Mary Kelly is a long established retailer on O’Connell Street and says she has never before known there to be so much unacceptable and dangerous behaviour around her premises. “As many years as I’ve been here I’ve never seen this level of anti social behaviour. We’ve had fleadhs, festivals, matches, big crowds of people and lots of drinking going on, but I’ve never feared for the safety of the people on the street or the shops until now.”
Shortly before she spoke to the Champion on Tuesday afternoon she had felt compelled to close the doors of her premises, because she could see trouble was brewing right outside. “I was very nervous. When I saw them outside the door it looked very volatile, four of them were genuinely aggressive. Then they saw someone they knew came along on the other side of the road and they followed him, however that ended up. It’s scary, there actually have been times when I’ve been slow to leave the shop to go to my car.”
As well as the fight which was recorded and shared online, she said there had been at least two other scraps on the street last week.
Mary has seen needle use in the area, which would indicate hard drugs are being traded and consumed. “I don’t think it’s antibiotics they’re injecting into their veins. It really saddens me that this type of thing is taking over.”
She says the month of March saw a significant decline in the area, and visiting O’Connell Street is now a somewhat daunting experience for many people. “It’s a situation that’s gradually getting out of control. The Guards are doing their best, but they can’t be everywhere. Yesterday afternoon there were four people begging on the street, they were sitting with their feet across the footpath, the other lads are hanging around the middle of the street and it’s a very hostile atmosphere for anyone who wants to go for a walk or needs to come into town to go to any of the places that are open.
“I hate the fact that I’ve become accustomed to it, I really hate the fact that I’ve become accustomed to it. I shouldn’t be feeling like that but I see people maybe in town for the first time in three or four weeks or who want to go for a walk and it’s a very uncomfortable situation, very uncomfortable.”
She feels that the absence of traffic over the last year has helped facilitate the growth in anti social behaviour, with a deterrent being removed. “Because there is no through traffic it’s a playground for people who wish to misbehave. That’s my feeling. I feel very strongly that if you haven’t got movement on the street you will have anti social carry on. It’s sad, I feel very sorry for local people who need to walk and this is their place, the town belongs to the people who live here, the people who trade here, the people who shop here and unfortunately it is being made very uncomfortable.”
John O’Connor, who has Custy’s Music Shop, said he was disgusted at the footage that was circulated last weekend. “I was absolutely appalled. I’m a parent, I have four kids and everyone comes into this world as a beautiful baby. Then you see someone there being exhorted to hurt this person, to hurt him before the Guards come. A young fella is taking a video of it and laughing while this person is being pulverised. We would maintain that this wouldn’t happen if traffic was moving freely through the streets. Every shopkeeper in this town would say that anti social behavour increases when traffic stops entering the street. It’s been seen in Cruise’s Street in Limerick, businesses in Parnell Street have seen it, once you have pedestrianisation it magnetizes anti social behaviour to that area. We’re breaking our backsides trying to make a living behind closed doors and we’re seeing a town that’s being degraded and let to degenerate into a situation where people are afraid to walk the town.”
He once installed an electric shock defence to stop people urinating outside his premises but said there is now widespread public urination around O’Connell Street, something he branded “a renaissance in pissing”.
Evidence of drug use is apparent, he says. “As an ordinary citizen you mightn’t even notice it until you start looking. You can see needles, people passing little packets. As a normal citizen you’re not conscious of it until you really stare and say ‘Jesus, this is happening right under our noses’. ”
Mr O’Connor is adamant that preventing vehicles from entering the O’Connell Street area has been a big factor in the rise of anti social behaviour in the area. “Our streets are being degraded and it’s being let happen under the guise of this pedestrianisation due to Covid.”
Another gripe he has with the County Council is the introduction of what he calls “the pukish parklet” on the street, which he says is a centre for trouble. “We see it as a magnet for people who litter, people are drinking there, we’ve witnessed people go into Brogan’s Lane and urinate after their fill of fast food. Some of our members have seen rats coming out from under that construction. We get no hearing in our dealings with the Council, we’ve given up on them completely.”
Martin Casey of MF Casey Paper, Printing & Stationery agrees that things have declined drastically. “I grew up as a child in O’Connell Square, we lived here. There has always been some anti social behaviour as there is in every town, but I have to say I have never noticed it being as bad.”
He feels that the decision not to allow traffic through the area for most of the day has had the unintended consequence of a major increase in inappropriate behaviour. “It does seem to be worse and I think a lot of it is due to the fact that traffic is not allowed through the town. When you have traffic going through, when you have deliveries all day, there is activity, even in Level 5 lockdown.”
He added, “Ennis always had a bustling, market town vibe around it, but that’s gone. Admittedly, you could put some of that down to Covid, but I genuinely feel that a big part of it is that traffic can’t come through the town, so there are less people. If two guys were squaring up to each other and there were cars passing someone would shout at them, they’d be less inclined to go at it.”
In a statement, Clare County Council defended the decision to limit traffic through the area. “The Temporary Covid-19 Ennis Town Centre Mobility Plan was brought in as a response to Covid-19 to enable social distancing on the narrow streets of Ennis. The plan is subject to review and the Government guidelines around social distancing remain unchanged at this time.
“The stakeholder group comprises all seven Ennis MD Councillors, the HSE, An Garda Síochána, Ennis Chamber of Commerce, Retail Excellence Ireland, Retailers of Ennis, Better Ennis Vintners’ Federation, Older Persons Council and disability advocates. The measures currently in place were agreed by all stakeholders who consider the plan in the context of submissions received, and Government guidelines. It was collectively decided by the group not to alter the traffic re-routing measures during the current Level 5 restrictions. This was done to ensure continued consumer confidence to shop in Ennis, enabling shoppers, workers and residents to social distance in the town centre. The group were also mindful of not causing confusion among the general public and businesses through reducing the level and times of street closures in Level 5 and re-introducing extended measures during a lower level lockdown.
“Clare County Council can confirm that An Garda Síochána, who are members of our Temporary Covid-19 Ennis Town Centre Mobility Plan stakeholder group, advised at our last meeting that there was no reported increase in the level of anti-social behaviour arising from the pedestrianisation measures, with statistics showing a decrease in same over the course of the pandemic. Furthermore, there is no proven correlation between pedestrianisation measures and an increase in rates of anti-social behaviour.’”