The president of the Garda Representative Association Damien McCarthy told the Minister for Justice during the week that he (the minister) was "soft on crime, the causes of crime, and the proceeds of crime".
McCarthy itemised reduced garda numbers, budget cuts and station closures as hitting the service. Delivery of service to the public has continued to be reduced, he added, and the minister's appointment had so far failed to have any significant impact on policing. Further, the members of the GRA "are rightly angered and feel betrayed by your shortcomings".
It was a hell of a broadside, coming as it did at the annual conference of the GRA, and the minister's reply was predictably and sharply offended: the comments were "alarmist and irresponsible", and devalued the work of McCarthy's own members.
McCarthy, for those of us old enough to remember, nicked the phrase about soft on crime from Tony Blair, whose initial prime ministerial broadside in Britain was that New Labour would be tough on the three elements. Leaving aside the fact that being tough on crime or otherwise is a fairly subjective concept, legislation is a slow process, and legislation is the only element of crime-fighting which a minister has within his jurisdiction, so maybe it was less than fair of Damien McCarthy to get so tough on Alan Shatter, who has been in office for only a year. There is only one way the minister could have made a significant inroad on the crime figures in such a short period of time: the enactment of a policy of "zero tolerance". And that has ostensibly been tried before, notably when John O'Donoghue was Minister for Justice, and he memorably said when the figures showed no noticeable improvement that it depended how you define "zero".
Zero tolerance of even petty crime also originated as a phrase and a policy outside this country. It was introduced by Rudy Giuliani as Mayor of New York, where it did work. It worked because the legal system there vests total power in the mayor, and there are levels of punishment available to fit levels of crime, unlike the situation in Ireland. Shatter does not have unlimited powers, and with all due respect to him or any minister past or future, I don't think we would like it if he had. And in a country where the legislative assembly has always operated with the speed of a glacier, and when Justice is only one department presenting legislation to be enacted by the Oireachtas, it's a bit tough to expect a minister to revolutionise crime and punishment in his first year.
The spat is more likely to have had its roots in the minister's somewhat abrasive personality rather than in his record in office. Shatter has gained himself a reputation for arrogance; he has incurred the wrath of both branches of the legal profession with the Legal Services Bill, which is seen as attempting to give control of the legal profession to the minister of the day. But it has to be remembered that the administration of justice and the control of crime are also a matter for the courts, and for the gardai.
The gardai may feel that they have been let down by successive ministers. . . and McCarthy's attack on Shatter is perhaps the sternest criticism yet of any minister. . . but the Garda Siochana itself is not without blame for holes in the system.
One seems to remember their huge resistance to the introduction of a comprehensive computer system which would make crime-fighting nationally cohesive, more wide-reaching, and a damn sight easier for the gardai themselves. But led by their union leaders, the gardai resisted: they wanted to be paid more for using the system, despite its advantages for their daily working lives. It wasn't the most intelligent decision ever made by the members of the force.
But McCarthy, like many before him, had a point when he criticised the revolving-door system in our overcrowded prisons, and repeated how badly let down his members feel when criminals benefit from it. So do the judges. So do the citizens. But it will never change as long as we have a one size fits all approach to crime and punishment. And repairing that is going to require long-term radical action.
Some years ago in conversation with a few confirmed, liberal-thinking, Democrat-voting and blind-in-one-eye Clinton fans (it was all Monica Lewinsky's fault, the little whore) from America, I said that in Ireland we were very proud of the fact that our police force is unarmed. It stopped them in their tracks, as none of them had noticed as they went about the streets of Dublin and Galway (the two cities they visited) that there were no swinging bulges on the hips of the gardai. And these card-carrying liberals wondered if the crime rate was not totally out of control as a result.
Our gardai are a community police force; they were set up to be one. They are not trained "enforcers". Most of us like it that way most of the time. And so, as it happens, do the gardai themselves. They don't want to carry guns. But as long as there is only one level of policing, there will be many situations where they find themselves overwhelmed. And they have to accept that, just as we as citizens have to accept its inadequacy on their behalf.
Otherwise, we have to accept a type and level of policing found in many mainland European countries, where there are several different police forces, using different styles of training, with different responsibilities, and quite frankly, different levels of violent authority. And they bring their guns on to the streets.
Do we want that?
Currently, judges don't have sentencing options: the shoplifter, the rapist, the TV licence defaulter, the drug dealer, the crime boss all get taken down to face jail sentences together. Jail is our only legal sanction, and we tell ourselves that at least that keeps the criminals off the street. But of course it doesn't: the result is that violent thugs walk the streets on bail while people are taking up jail space for failing to pay fines.
Would we accept a radical liberalisation of the sentencing system which would be a lot less vengeful but a lot more effective? Would a government retain support if it introduced such a system or would we also yell "soft on crime?" With rigidly enforced codes of community service, not a spasmodic, cosmetic joke as at present, people convicted of minor anti-social behaviour could learn a humiliating lesson. Just as those convicted of minor non-violent crime could be put to currently neglected public service tasks for which they are paid the minimum wage, but have it handed over to their victims until the debt is paid.
It could be done. But it could not be done in the lifetime in office of a single minister or a single administration. It would require a radical national rethink, a lot of growing up, and a great deal of honesty instead of double-talk and double-think.
It's a bit tough to blame Alan Shatter for the lack of all that.