How a call from one rural crime victim started off a campaign
Published 22/01/2016 | 00:00
What had begun with a phone call from an angry victim quickly evolved into a campaign that forced the issue of rural crime onto the national agenda - and the agenda of the forthcoming general election.
Tipperary businessman John Tully contacted the Irish Independent to complain that his area had become plagued by burglars. His shop had been targeted twice in less than 14 months by thieves who broke in through the roof.
Mr Tully organised a group of local farmers, businessmen and citizens from the village of Littleton and its hinterland to gather together to highlight their plight. And the story they had to tell was extraordinary.
Over the previous three years, practically every business premises, farmhouse and private dwelling within a 10-mile radius of the tiny hamlet on the old Cork to Dublin road had been burgled at least once, with many of them targeted on multiple occasions. The village, 8km from Thurles, has been repeatedly hit by travelling criminal gangs since it was bypassed by the M8.
The residents group had catalogued over 50 incidents in the previous 12 months alone. Every premises in the village of Littleton, population around 400, had either an attempted break-in or an actual robbery.
Local parish priest Fr Joe Tynan told how not even the deceased members of the community were exempt.
"This crimewave is destroying the community because people feel very vulnerable, people feel powerless - and I suppose that is how I feel myself," Fr Tynan admitted.
"This problem began about three years ago and has escalated ever since. The candle shrines in the church are regularly being broken into using bolt cutters, and flowers and personal items are constantly being taken off graves."
The group expressed their utter frustration that most of the crimes remained unsolved. They blame the chronic lack of garda resources and a lack of support by garda management for the village's only officer.
The sheer volume of thefts meant that many businesses and homeowners could no longer afford rising insurance premiums.
Michael Clohessy, who owns the local garage, clutched a sheaf of garda 'crime victim' letters to illustrate how often he had been targeted by criminals.
"Each time I am robbed, I get great help from our local garda - but he is one man on his own and he is snowed under. The guards don't have the resources to deal with this any more," he said.
What should have been a wake-up call for the Garda Commissioner and the Justice Minister was that these concerned, law-abiding citizens had lost faith in the ability of the gardaí to protect them.
When the Irish Independent ran the first of many stories on the subject in August, the overwhelming public response quickly showed that Littleton represented a microcosm of what was happening right across rural Ireland.
Initially, it seemed that no one in either garda headquarters or the Government seemed to have noticed the problem.
The Irish Independent met the victims of crime across the country and everywhere we went they blamed the rural crime epidemic on garda station closures and a lack of resources for the force.
A depressing picture began to emerge of whole counties having only a handful of gardaí on duty at any one time, with barely enough gardaí to man the squad cars which, after years of neglect, were clapped out and incapable of pursuing robbers in their high-powered getaway vehicles.
In particular, our reports busted the myth of 'community policing' and exposed the rhetoric of the garda top brass, who proclaimed the force to be a "community-centred" service.
The truth is that in most rural communities, residents no longer know the local gardaí, whom they only ever see when a crime has occurred - or they are stopped for speeding.
All of these factors were made abundantly clear by the 3,000-plus citizens who attended two 'monster' meetings in Tipperary and Meath in October and November, under the theme 'Save our Communities'.
The men and women of rural Ireland held microphones in faltering hands as they shared harrowing stories of being robbed and terrorised in their homes. They spoke of living in fear and having a gun beside the bed. When asked would they condone the shooting of an intruder by a homeowner with his licensed firearm, there was no equivocation in the show of raised hands from the people in Tipperary and the northeast.
Mary, an elderly lady living alone in Tipperary, told a particularly poignant story to the hushed audience crammed into the function room of the Anner Hotel in Thurles. She said her peaceful world had been thrown into chaos after a burglary at her home. Her voice trembled as she described not being able to sleep at night and keeping a shotgun beside her bed.
The display of people power sent a shiver of fear through the collective spine of the current Government - especially Fine Gael, whose original support base was the farming class.
There is a perception that the grassroots supporters have been forgotten about.
The law-abiding, loyal citizens are angry that they have been taken for granted by a Government that put the economy before the people it serves. The people of rural Ireland believe their way of life is under threat and that their plight has been ignored. When gangs of feral thugs began taking advantage of an under-resourced garda force and descended on the countryside to rob, it was the final insult.
Behind closed doors, there has been a concerted effort, especially on the part of the Garda Commissioner and her deputies, to bury the rural crime narrative. In off-the-record briefings to journalists, both the commissioner and her political master have been claiming that concerns over rural crime were merely hype promulgated by this newspaper.
But whatever about her private assertions, in public Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald felt compelled to announce three times the same piece of proposed legislation cracking down on repeat burglars.
There was also a rush to announce the purchase of a new fleet of high-powered squad cars to tackle the motorway bandits - which turned out to be nothing more than replacements for existing vehicles that were ready for the scrapyard.
And then the minister and her commissioner, who both believe there is really no problem with rural crime, announced the launch of the €5m Operation Thor, designed to target burglary gangs. It is only scheduled to last until April - when the election will be safely out of the way.