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Helen McEntee frets about knife crime, although the evidence fails to show a big rise

Playing the law-and-order card may be a savvy political gambit, but hard facts stand up the argument

Fine Gael Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is a bit worried about knife crime. There is, she says, a “small and incremental problem here in Ireland and what we have to do is make sure it doesn’t get any worse”.

James Browne, the Fianna Fáil junior minister in her department, is very worried. He worked on the plan to bring in harsher sentencing for knife crimes which was approved by Cabinet this week. He would like to see bans on certain types of knives and an age limit for their purchase. He is also concerned about “Zombie knives”, although he admits the long-bladed weapons favoured by protagonists in zombie apocalypse movies are not very common here.

That is the problem in a nutshell. Playing the law-and-order card may be a tried and tested political gambit but it helps to have clear evidence of the scale of the problem you’re trying to fix. Leaning into the issue of knife crime is an old reliable in this regard, but aside from a few high-profile and horrific knife attacks recently, there is very little proof that Ireland has a growing problem with knife crime that can only be tackled with resolute action and muscular political leadership.

The one substantial bit of research on the topic seems to be an analysis of knife-crime data carried out by the Garda in February 2021, more than three years ago. The force looked at three things: the number of knives seized, crime incidents where a knife was involved; and the number of people discharged from hospital following an assault with a knife. The report found that the number of knives seized increased between 2016 and 2018 but said it was due largely to the introduction of a new system for recording objects confiscated by the gardaí which meant they were better able to track the number of knives involved.


The number of knives seized between 2019-2020 (2,142 in 2019 and 2,243 in 2020) increased by 5 per cent, but the figures come with a caveat that there was a substantial increase in the number of searches carried out in 2020, many of which were related to “high visibility operations due to Covid-19″. Incidents where knives were involved fell between 2019 and 2020 – 1,534 in 2019 versus 1,333 in 2020. An incident is defined as a “case where an offender may have been in possession of a knife and used it to threaten but not carry out an assault or cause injury”. These are the types of offences that the tougher sentences proposed by McEntee and Browne are meant to combat.

The final thing the Garda study looked at was hospital discharges. They found a slight increase in the numbers discharged following an assault with a knife between 2018 and 2019 but added they “remain considerably lower than those seen up to 2011 and below the slight rises seen between 2013 and 2015″. The report concluded that there was “no strong evidence to suggest that there has been any increase in crimes incidents involving knives”.

Aontú’s Peadar Tóibín, who is also worried about knife crime, went looking in January for information stabbings and knife attacks per country. He was told in a written answer to a Dáil question, by none other than James Browne, that the 2021 Garda review was the most up-to-date source of information, although Browne believed “an updated report, to end of 2023, is being prepared with a view to publication when complete”.

Some additional information on the number of people discharged from hospital after being treated for an assault with a knife is available. Figures supplied to this publication’s crime and security correspondent Conor Gallagher by the Health Service Executive show that 192 people were discharged in 2022, compared to 162 in 2021, 157 in 2020 and 178 in 2019. That is an average of 172 a year. There is also some additional information on knives seized including the figure of 2,186 in 2023. But as the Garda noted in their analysis, seizures are a function of Garda activity as much as anything else and in isolation are a pretty meaningless statistic.

It is not entirely inaccurate to say the recent data indicate a slightly growing problem with knife crime, but it is hardly a robust evidential basis for making policy that will have significant consequences for Garda and court resources which could be deployed elsewhere.

You would like to think that any serious approach to policymaking would require a slightly stronger evidence base, and at a minimum McEntee and Browne would have awaited the second Garda analysis, which is in the works. Then they could take steps based on the nature and scale of the problem.

But why wait for the facts when you are led by Taoiseach Simon Harris who told his first ardfheis: “Under my leadership, Fine Gael will always stand for law and order. We stand for more gardaí, with more powers and more resources to make our streets safe. We stand for tougher sentences for those who commit horrific crimes.”