Up to 1,000 children across the State could be involved with a criminal network, according to a five-year study published by the University of Limerick. 

The "ground-breaking research" details how criminal networks attract and trap children as young as eight years old into gangs across Ireland.

Researchers say the figure of 1,000 at-risk children is based on a population of half a million Irish young people. 

The 'Greentown Project' compiled significant evidence of children's engagement in crime networks.  

Four separate reports have been published as part of the project, which is a partnership between the University of Limerick and the Department of Justice.

The research mostly focused on children who commit repeat offences such as burglary and the sale and supply of drugs. 

Three of the reports are locally based case studies which have been gathered from real towns across the country. The locations have not been disclosed because the authors do not want to discourage youths from participating in future studies. 

'Greentown' and 'Redtown' focus on network activity in two provincial towns. 'Bluetown' looks at criminal networks in a Dublin location.  

The fourth report is a national survey which assessed the prevalence of problems identified in the Greentown study across Ireland. 

It found that the family backgrounds of children featured in the Greentown study were generally characterised by chaotic lifestyles that included drugs, petty crime and mental health issues.  

Many of the children were unsupervised late at night and had problems at school. The report found that the children were drawn to the criminal gang because of easy access to money, drugs and alcohol, but also by the perceived increase in status within their community. 

The 'Greentown' study mainly focused on male children (94%) aged 16/17 years (71%). 

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"We were interested in how they [criminal networks] suck children in with promises of bling and a party lifestyle and retain them through debts, obligations and fear",' said Dr Sean Redmond, Adjunct Professor of Youth Justice at University of Limerick and Principal Investigator for the Greentown project. 

The findings paint a bleak picture for many young children across the country who are being exploited by powerful networks. "They often live cheek by jowl in the same backwater estates", according to Dr Redmond. 

"From a child protection perspective, these children are clearly being exploited by adults. From a law enforcement perspective, they appear to commit a significantly disproportionate amount of youth related crime", Dr Redmond said. 

The study found that once the children fall into debt, being a member of the criminal gang "becomes less of a volition and more of a compulsion." 

''These children are being exploited',' Dr Redmond told RTÉ News.

''They don't ask to be born into these types of situation. They're faced with adversaries and demands you wouldn't expect adults to be able to deal with let alone children.'' 

Last week the Department of Justice published legislation, which for the first time creates a new criminal offence for the grooming or exploitation of children. 

''We're putting new mechanisms in place to ensure criminal gangs do not get away with this,'' Minister for Justice Helen McEntee told RTÉ News.

''Our plans to outlaw the grooming of children into crime is a clear signal that we are serious about stopping the gangs from leading our young into a life of crime.'' Ms McEntee said. 

The bill is currently going through the Oireachtas for pre-legislation scrutiny. 

A community intervention programme in two unidentified communities will attempt to provide ''a way out'' for children at risk of falling into criminal gangs. 

The Government is providing €4.3 million to the two communities to help create opportunities for the most vulnerable.

Gardaí and youth workers will try to persuade those vulnerable to joining criminal gangs that there are alternatives.  

Researchers say children who are part of the networks are viewed by their communities, firstly as a criminal and secondly as a child. Ms McEntee described the report as an ''extremely important piece of work''. 

''We want to say to these children; there are other options available,'' the minister said. ''To show them that this is not the life for you.''