Measures needed to reduce violent crime level


What is it about the Ireland of the 21st century that has led to such an escalation in violence, asks Ian O'Donnell

Violent crime has become an increasing focus of media, political and public concern. However, the contours of the problem are barely understood and its relationship to wider social forces has received little attention.

In the middle of the 20th century, Ireland was a safe country by any standard. There were so few killings that the population was on first-name terms with every victim and perpetrator. This situation has been transformed in recent years.

In the 1950s and 1960s there was roughly one killing a month; between 2001 and 2004 there was more than one a week.

What is it about Ireland at the beginning of the 21st century that has led to an escalation in violence? Some ingredients of an explanation include rising alcohol consumption, the trade in drugs, economic changes and migration patterns.

These factors are not all of equal weight, nor do they operate independently. For example, the improved economic situation has generated substantial inward migration and allowed increased levels of alcohol consumption. These in turn have affected on routine activities and opportunities for violence.

Consider alcohol. Ireland had a comparatively low level of alcohol consumption for most of the 20th century. This may have played a role in suppressing violent crime.

The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association was a major force in social life and by the end of the 1950s claimed a membership of 500,000. It was not unusual for young people to make the "heroic offering" to abstain from alcohol for life. This is in marked contrast to the binge-drinking and associated public disorder that has become so prevalent and such a problem.

There is good reason for thinking that alcohol and violence are related. Research carried out at the Department of Justice showed that in about half of homicide cases, victim, perpetrator or both were intoxicated.

It is more difficult to map drug use on to patterns of violence. The arrival of heroin was not greeted by an upsurge in killing. The 1980s, when opiate use became a severe problem, saw only slightly more murder and manslaughter than the previous decade.

The crime peaks in 1983 and 1995 coincided with the crests of the two waves of the heroin epidemic in Dublin. As most crime is against property, this supports the notion of heroin users as primarily acquisitive criminals.

Where drugs and crime intersect lethally is the area of supply and distribution. This is a marketplace where disputes are resolved with predictably vicious consequences. It would seem that many so-called gangland killings are related to the organisation of the drug trade.

This type of violence is relatively new to the Irish scene and has certainly contributed to the rising murder rate.

In tandem with the growth in alcohol consumption and the trade in drugs, there has been a swift increase in prosperity. This is a complex area of research, but there is evidence that homicide is related both to poverty and to inequality. One recent study claimed that levels of income inequality appeared to be sufficient to account for the radically different rates of homicide in Canada and the US.

When the same value - wealth accumulation - is considered suitable for all members of society, but attainable only by a few, poverty may breed resentment and crime. When failure is viewed as personal rather than social weakness, the pressure to succeed may lead to the selection of a deviant career in preference to a legitimate one.

An example of such a process would be involvement in drug-dealing as a way to acquire the trappings of wealth and associated respect. In this way an unequal society can create a context for violent crime.

It is important to take account also of population shifts. The number of homicides rose steeply in the 1970s and 1990s, decades of net inward migration.

Conversely, the level of criminal violence in the mid-20th century may have been affected by the emigration of large numbers of those in high-risk groups, particularly impoverished young men. These emigrants did not always behave themselves when they went away but their absence kept the crime rate in Ireland artificially low.

In 1960, more Irish-born males were committed to prisons in England than in Ireland. Notwithstanding the turnaround in the country's fortunes, this tradition has continued.

The most recent figures show that more than 700 men and women from the Republic are in custody in England and Wales. This constitutes 8 per cent of all foreign prisoners and is the biggest single national grouping after Jamaica.

It is important to state that despite recent trends, the national rate of lethal violence is not high by European standards and most counties end most years homicide-free. There is a strong relationship between killing and geography, with the fewest incidents recorded in the west and the Border counties. Indeed the murder rate is lower today in these parts of the country than it was 20 years ago.

If we could identify the factors that have insulated some areas from the upsurge in killing, there might be important lessons for public safety. However, it would be foolish to be unduly optimistic in this regard.

Some of the recent changes to Irish society are inherently pernicious and probably irreversible. Others are welcome yet have harmful consequences. There are no simple solutions to complex and shifting social problems. However, this does not mean we must submit to the arrival of a more brutish world.

There is scope for progress at several levels. First, we need to address attitudes to alcohol consumption and target locations where alcohol-related violence is concentrated with preventive strategies. There is a role here for families, schools and local communities.

Second, we must reduce the demand for illegal drugs and the rewards associated with the drug trade. This would involve public health initiatives and innovative policing strategies.

Third, we need to develop a shared understanding of what makes a society prone to violence and keep this in mind when formulating social policy. This is where Government action could be effective.

Underlying these suggestions is the need for good quality information, disinterested analysis and a readiness to discard approaches that are not demonstrably effective. This is where criminology comes into the equation. There is considerable scope for independent scholarly research to inform effective and humane crime reduction strategies. To date this potential has not been fully realised.

Dr Ian O'Donnell is deputy director of the institute of criminology at the UCD school of law.