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Law targets unruly beggars in Ireland

With the Celtic Tiger faltering, some say the crackdown will only add to the misery of the poor.

By Michael SeaverCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 24, 2008

Criminals? A woman begged with a child on a street in Dublin, Ireland.



Dublin, Ireland

New restrictions on begging are being instituted here for the first time since the potato famine of the 1840s.

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Although merchants say changes are needed to deal with an increasingly aggressive and organized cadre of panhandlers, critics call the measure an unnecessary criminalization of society's most vulnerable members.

"It's very much a crude, 19th-century response," says Joe Costello, a spokesman for the opposition Labor Party. "Begging generally reflects a range of social problems, and simply imposing a punitive response is not addressing these problems."

The legislation, which authorities say was meant to address a legal loophole – not the predicted increase in vagrancy caused by the faltering economy – will impose a maximum fine of €700 (about $1,000) or a month in prison for "aggressive" begging. As the changes are enacted in coming months, the Garda, or Irish national police force, will also be given new powers to order beggars to desist.

The impetus for the law came after Ireland's High Court ruled last year that the existing Vagrancy Act of 1847 – an antibegging law introduced by Britain during the Irish Potato Famine – was outdated and interfered with an individual's right to freedom of expression.

"Authorities had no legal powers to prosecute cases of begging," says a spokesperson from the Department of Justice. "The minister [of Justice Dermot Ahern] decided that this was an unacceptable situation."

Business and tourism interests lobbied the government to fill the legal lacuna. Tom Coffey, CEO of the Dublin City Business Association, says the new law is needed because members of his association have been victims of organized begging and increased levels of intimidation.

"There has been an influx of international beggars who are professional and very aggressive," he says, adding that there is also a "huge level" of associated theft.

No matter the rationale, the change comes during tougher times. Not long ago, Ireland was known as the Celtic Tiger for its booming economy. This year, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, the economy here will contract by 1.8 percent. Unemployment is also expected to hit 10 percent in 2009.

"We are expecting a spike in homelessness over the next year," says Dermot Kavanagh, assistant director of Merchants Quay Ireland, a Dublin-based charity that helps drug users and the homeless.