Fearing a future without a Garda station nearby


DAY 3: RURAL CRIMEAs the Government finalises the next round of Garda station closures, a community in north Wexford is concerned with crime levels and fearful of losing Garda personnel

IN THE small hours of a Tuesday morning late last month Pat Lambert got a phone call. The alarm on his petrol station shop had been activated. Another robbery was under way.

He glanced at the clock in the house: 1.45am. Then he jumped into his car and sped an anxious few minutes to his business in the usually quiet north Wexford village of Camolin.

The pensioner pulled up on the forecourt of his garage. Shining his headlights full beam into the shop and sounding the car horn, he expected the raiders to make a run for it.

Instead, gang members who had kicked and hammered their way into the storeroom and had been helping themselves to cartons of cigarettes valued at €15,000 came out and fired fire extinguishers, shopping trolleys and hammers at his car.

“I had to back out of there,” he says.

He drove off and parked discreetly just a few hundred yards up the road. A few minutes later, after loading his stock into their stolen VW Golf, the gang sped past.

“I phoned the guards and told them they were driving off towards Bunclody and Enniscorthy – if they could get out the squad car. Of course: no squad cars available.”

Gardaí at the local station in Gorey, some 12km away, had been called away.

“A domestic disturbance up country,” says Lambert.

It left the gang free to get out of the area, stop off at the Supervalu in Bunclody and relieve it of cigarettes worth about €25,000.

Lambert says his Londis shop – attached to his service station, pub and nightclub on the northern side of Camolin – has been robbed three times in as many years.

“I’m getting big steel shutters in tomorrow. They’ll give me a bit of peace of mind.”

Lambert’s family owned the pub across the road from his current business for more than a century. “I did everything in business: 5,000 laying hens here when I was a teenager,” he says. “Bought a small farm in the 1970s and had 800 pigs. Got an oil tanker and ran that. And then had the nightclub and the pub here, the petrol pumps and the shop the past few years. Built all of that from a green sod.”

Now in his 60s, he says Wexford has changed in the years since “I was in my heyday in the ballrooms”.

He rattles off a series of recent incidents: three shots fired at a house up the road, old people being robbed of their cash life savings in their homes, sometimes in daylight and when they were at home. Cars are being robbed in the area and windows have been smashed in sprees on a number of occasions.

“We had a pub in Dublin back in 1978. I watched the drugs starting to creep in as far back as that. Then they came into the pub around four Monday mornings over a period, they had guns with them and wanted the money. All that’s moved down here now, that’s the way I’d see it.”

While recorded crime fell last year nationally by 6 per cent, the number of offences recorded in Gorey Garda station rose 16 per cent to 752 incidents.

It is widely rumoured that as part of the Government’s programme of Garda station closures, Gorey is to lose its status as a district headquarters in a move that would see it also lose personnel.

Local councillor Malcolm Byrne (FF) has written to Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan to raise his concerns. He has not been reassured by the response, which confirmed policing arrangements in the area are under review.

Byrne says if Gorey Garda station is being reviewed for scaling back despite the increasing crime rate and population explosion in the region over the past 10 to 12 years, communities all over the country need to be worried for their local policing service.

He says the boom ushered in a change in profile for the area. Where once Gorey had been a busy country town with seaside villages nearby, it was now a major urban centre due to a large influx of people.

“A lot of it has been to the good and I still think north Wexford is a welcoming place and good for business. But there certainly is a rougher element now that has come with that. There is a more of a gang culture that has developed, a fear of certain families. That’s new to this area.”

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has already begun a programme of Garda station closures, with 49 shut or having had their opening hours curtailed this year. He has said that having 704 Garda stations in a small country such as the Republic is unsustainable.

He wants to press ahead with more closures next year to save money, believing it will also make the Garda a more efficient force. He has asked the commissioner to draw up a list of stations that might be targeted next.

Central Statistics Office crime statistics at Garda station level indicate there are surprisingly few crimes being reported in most stations. Last year 79.8 per cent of the country’s Garda stations recorded only one crime per day or fewer. In 41 per cent of all stations the recorded crime rate was lower than one incident per week.

New ways of reporting crime through social media and the internet are being developed to save police time in England and Wales. There are just 1,300 police stations in England and Wales for a population of 55 million. The first such mechanism has been rolled out in the Republic in the form of a new facility on the Garda website for reporting thefts up to a value of €500.

While Garda sources scoff at the notion of “policing by Facebook”, sources in the Department of Justice say a well-run online mechanism could easily accommodate the reporting of tens of thousands of less serious offences each year, making small and part-time rural Garda stations less relevant.

The Garda Representative Association, which represents 11,300 rank-and-file gardaí in the 13,500- strong force, says the programme of station closures in England and Wales should not be followed here.

The association says that when it speaks to its British counterparts they say they have lost touch with communities in areas where stations have been closed, with policing suffering as a result.

The association’s president, John Parker, says many small stations cost in the region of €3,000 to run annually and the public offices in the great majority are in good repair.

He says they will not need any investment for the next decade, adding that there is no great cost saving to be made by closing such stations.

He suggests the effectiveness of a smaller station cannot be judged simply by the number of crimes it records or detects, saying there is as much if not more value in bonding with local communities. It is through this trust that confidential information will help solve crime locally and in surrounding areas.

“People will know they can talk to him, that whatever they say to the local garda will not get out.”

He says the presence of a small Garda station in communities reassures locals, deters crime and leads to community-based crime prevention programmes working much more effectively.