Shatter must tackle a widespread fear that criminals have the upper hand

Fri, Feb 1, 2013, 00:00

The last person Minister for Justice Alan Shatter wanted to meet this week was somebody like Fr Michael Cusack.

The cleric’s homily from the altar at the funeral Mass of Det Garda Adrian Donohoe was strong. He gave the great and the good gathered – most of the Cabinet from the Taoiseach down and most senior Garda officers from Commissioner Martin Callinan down – what amounted to a lecture on the direction they were taking the country’s policing. They had no option but to sit there and take it.

He relayed how in his native community in Co Galway there had always only ever been one garda; enough to reassure people they were safe, especially the elderly.

But since that permanent presence had been withdrawn, two men in their eighties had had their “heads bashed in”, one of them left without hearing or a sense of smell as a result. People were afraid in their beds.

Fr Cusack’s remarks were loudly applauded by mourners in the congregation at St Joseph’s Redemptorist Church in Dundalk and by the estimated 2,000 gardaí in their uniforms standing outside in the rain.

One observer said the applause from them was “like drum roll”.

Fr Cusack knew Adrian Donohoe well and knows his widow Caroline, also a garda. He came from his hospital bed to celebrate the service when he was asked. And coming from a family with three generations of gardaí, he appeared to understand Garda culture and voiced the concerns of those within it. Many present sensed his views were not a solo run.

Some of the younger gardaí who knew Adrian Donohoe have said privately this week they feel more vulnerable now that resources have been cut back. And therein lies the problem for Alan Shatter’s Garda station closure programme; it is people’s fear of crime that he has to manage as much as the incidence of crime.

The statistics show serious crime – apart from burglaries – has fallen every year since 2008. Notwithstanding the cold-blooded murder of Adrian Donohoe, the illegal possession or discharging of firearms has fallen by 25 per cent and 50 per cent respectively since 2008. Fatal attacks have fallen only marginally but overall gun crime trends suggest that gardaí – and the wider community – are safer now from gunmen than for many years.

Yesterday some 95 Garda stations officially closed, following 40 closures last year and leaving the network reduced from 704 to 564. A further five are due to close this year. Shatter was quick to point out this compares with 340 stations in Scotland for a population of 5.2 million and with 83 in Northern Ireland, where the population is 1.8 million and where there were 160 stations in 2000.

He added that most of those being closed were only ever open for a small number of hours each week and had not deterred burglaries in the early hours because they were shut at those times.

He is right in all of those respects. But politics is the art of persuasion, and Shatter does not seem to understand fully that people will judge his and the Government’s record on crime based on their fear of crime rather than the reality around them.

The murder of a detective and attacks on people in their eighties will linger much longer in people’s minds than any arguments justifying station closures, however well grounded in fact and articulate they might be.

CONOR LALLYis Crime Correspondent

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