HOW long will it be until a rural town or village decides enough is enough and locals start mounting their own night-time patrols to beat the roving gangs of thieves now operating with impunity over large swathes of the Irish countryside?
It would be a dangerous move, a development that would rightly set alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power and among gardai.
But as the closure of rural garda stations gathers pace and while Justice Minister Alan Shatter continues to run his fiefdom with an emphasis on saving money rather than on the safety, security and peace of mind of ordinary people, organised patrols could become a tangible manifestation of rural fury.
In the US there is a well-established movement, Citizens on Patrol, or COP, who volunteer time to patrol neighbourhoods. Using their own vehicles with signs that identify them as COP, they act as additional "eyes and ears" for local police. It's not something that has ever been needed before in this country but there is now a clear groundswell of anger, dismay and helplessness over the unravelling of rural Ireland.
Most of Ireland's existing 43 constituencies are in predominantly rural areas and it is easy to imagine that respected independent candidates organised in a loose coalition around a simple manifesto of security and retention of services in rural areas could give the established parties an election fright. It's not so long ago that Roscommon elected a TD purely of the basis of saving its local hospital.
It is clear that there is a massive disconnect between the Cabinet and rural Ireland where the elderly now live in fear, where empty houses are chosen in broad daylight for a night-time burglary attack, where churches and sacristies, seen as soft targets with plenty of cash and valuables around, are routinely robbed and where householders are afraid to put more than €200 of kerosene in the home heating tank for fear it will be siphoned off.
The litany of crime against the vulnerable in recent months tells a grim tale.
Maureen Kelly lives alone in a quiet rural area just outside Convoy, Co Donegal. She is 86 years old. Last week, at least three raiders stormed into her home and ransacked it, looking for cash and valuables.
Just 72 hours earlier, 96- year-old Margaret 'Greta' Lilly needed hospital treatment after her home in Aghilly, Buncrana, was raided. The raiders punched and threatened the terrified woman.
In Listowel, Co Kerry, a 90-year-old woman was discovered lying traumatised on the floor of her bedroom after raiders broke in during the dark of night, shouting at her to hand over money. The woman, who lives alone, was found lying on the floor of her bedroom in a state of shock the next morning.
Neighbours say she has been so traumatised by the incident that she has vowed never to leave her home again.
In the north east, a 93-year-old man was another victim when a woman posed as a health worker to gain access to his Drogheda home. She made him a cup of tea – and then ransacked his house, stealing money. There was another similar incident involving another elderly victim in the same area.
Fr Christy McCormack, the Co Galway parish priest who was assaulted by a gang of raiders last week outside his home in Fohenagh, not far from Ballinasloe, has warned that people are being left vulnerable in their homes.
"It's sad to say that every citizen in the State is becoming more and more vulnerable. There is such lack of respect for person and property," he said.
In fact, churches have become major targets of the roving gangs. In Limerick, Ballagran parish priest Fr Joseph Shire expressed his shock after thieves broke into the church sacristy on Christmas Day, stealing €5,000 made up of Christmas dues.
"It is shocking, absolutely. Nothing is sacred any more," he said.
Raiders also targeted the Friary in Wexford town and the sacristy was completely ransacked during a Christmas break-in.
The Church of Ireland church in Templescoby near Enniscorthy was hit by oil thieves. The raiders drained the central heating tank of St Paul's church just a couple of days before Christmas.
Rural Wexford has been hit with a spate of robberies, with gangs of thieves siphoning off oil from tanks in homes, farms, schools and community centres. A national school at Davidstown was among the community buildings targeted by the thieves.
The same thing is happening in Co Louth, with oil from tanks at Kilkerley national school and Mullabouy church drained by thieves. It is understood that both school and church recently had their tanks filled with nearly €1,000 worth of home-heating fuel in each tank.
In Rosslare, holiday homes at Soldiers Cottages and St Helen's were targeted. Thieves managed to enter three homes and steal televisions and other household goods. Three more homes showed signs of forced entry.
Even on Christmas Day, the raiders were busy in Longford with two house raids at an occupied house at Silchester Terrace, Battery Road, Longford and a few hours later at an unoccupied home at Athlone Road in Longford.
That's a mere snapshot of the reality in rural Ireland at the turn of 2013. Brutal raids on the elderly, house and fuel robberies galore, aggravated robbery of a priest in broad daylight.
And, meanwhile, garda stations are closing their doors for the last time.
In rural Limerick, Kilfinane, Kilmeedy, Tournafulla, Castletown, Conyers and Galbally stations will shut down. In Kerry last year Moyvane, Cloghane and Ballylongford were axed and now Brosna, Abbeydorney, Lauragh, Kilgarvan, Beaufort, Valentia, Camp, Ballinskelligs and Fenit are in the firing line.
Five Tipperary stations – New Inn, Grangemockler, Terryglass, Rearcross, and Dundrum – are earmarked for closure this year.
Three Kildare and two west Wicklow stations are for the chop as well as a significant number of closures in Galway and Mayo where some of the most violent crimes against the elderly have taken place.
Leitrim stations are also being targeted. Among those that will close next year are nine in the Sligo, Leitrim district including the stations in
'In rural Ireland, there is a palpable anger that they have been simply abandoned'
Dromahair, Glenfarne, Cloone, Keshcarrigan and Dromod. Again, robbery of home heating oil, farm machinery and generators as well as more disturbing raids on homes in isolated areas are now part of daily life.
And yet Minister for Justice Alan Shatter is spending his time embroiled in a war of words with representative organisations over the impact of budget cuts on garda numbers. He says there is "no reality or possibility" that garda numbers will be cut by between 1,000 and 1,500 by the end of the year.
Inevitably, the focus has been on the murderous activities of the estimated 25 violent criminal gangs, mostly involved in drugs, and embroiled in various murderous feuds.
But in rural Ireland there is a palpable anger that they have been abandoned; that endemic thievery, house burglaries and the deeply sinister targeting of the elderly living alone is now regarded by the Minister for Justice and his cabinet colleagues as acceptable collateral damage in the battle to balance the books.