Sunday 21 December 2014

John Downing: Garda's murder heightens national unease over security

Published 28/01/2013 | 17:00

MANY political predictions turn out to be wide of the mark. Sometimes, when the political pundits get the predictions right, it is not their fault. Predictions can be right for the wrong reasons – or through complete happenstance.

Very occasionally predictors are truly brilliant and hit the bullseye; the posh word then is "perspicacious". And the rarity with which that word is aired speaks for itself.

There is a very dark side to all this apparently light-hearted musing on life this Monday morning. The truly sad part is that it took a gun-toting yob, who joined other gun-toting yobs to rob a people's bank last Friday night, and in the process murdered the young father of a family who was doing his duty, to bring this point home.

I'll quicken up here and pull this together. Clearly, I'm talking about the brutal murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe in Louth last Friday night. But less clearly, I'm talking about the predictions made just weeks ago about the coming political year, 2013.

Hands up, I number among all the other writers who wrote and spoke about exiting the EU-IMF bailout; getting a deal on bank debt; resolving the 30-year national confusion about abortion; keeping a troubled Fine Gael-Labour Coalition together; preparing for June 2014 local and European elections; and some other political odds and sods. Those items still stand as leading the 2013 political agenda – but one issue was universally missed.

What was the one we all missed? Well, the official term is "security".

Most of us know it as the ability to walk the streets safely, to go to the credit union or wherever without being robbed or worse, to eat, sleep and live in a sense of relative security. Hand-in-glove with this sense of security runs a need to know that our localities are being policed.

In saying all that, we must also acknowledge that Justice Minister Alan Shatter is right to say that this killing could happen outside any credit union anywhere on any Friday night. It could happen any time in the case of any shop, bar or other place reputed to have sums of cash.

But it did happen in the week which saw the beginning of the planned closure of 100 garda stations across the country. It happened in the week in which those unlikely rebels, the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, withdrew in frustration from public service pay and re-organisation talks. It happened as we picked up more intelligence generally about a lowering of morale in the ranks of the gardai.

We have known for a long time about the continuing threat of drug gangs, and other criminality going on across the country. We have known about the roaming gangs of robbers carrying out crude raids on vulnerable people. We have also known about the merger and overlap of these activities with those so-called "dissident republicans" – atrocious abuse of language though that term is.

It took Adrian Donohoe's murder to put a shape on a growing national unease about ordinary people's security. It took that not-entirely-unexpected atrocity to sharpen the focus in an overdue national debate. Amid the near-universal sadness at the death of a decent family man, there is an opportunity for a level-headed political debate which must begin as soon as is decent.

There is a certain realpolitik which will inform any such debate. Yesterday saw the publication of two opinion polls which brought mixed news for the Government. It was universally bad news for Labour, whose slide continues. Fine Gael has grounds for arguing that it is not such bad news at all – given that its work of two years has been the universal dishing out of cutbacks and other misery.

But Fine Gael TDs, who are reminded every week about this public fear of crime at their clinics, will have noticed a source of great potential worry in these surveys. It is that Fianna Fail is creeping back in to the public's regard.

In fact, if you want to set more store by the 'Behaviour & Attitudes' poll for the 'Sunday Times', the Fine Gael-Fianna Fail gap is just 2pc. Even if you want to go with the 'RedC' survey for the 'Sunday Business Post' the gap is just 7pc.

Let's recall that in the February 2011 General Election Fine Gael polled 36pc, returning 76 TDs, to Fianna Fail's 17pc and 20 TDs.

For so many voters, Fine Gael is nothing if not the party of law and order. They are the ones who delivered an unarmed civilian police force and a concept of consensual law and order with which the bulk of us agree.

Mr Shatter is right to argue that this country has to continue cutting public expenditure. This coming year we are set to borrow €12bn from our EU partners to maintain public services, including policing. He and senior garda managers have to find ways of doing more with less.

But the events of the weekend remind us that there are limits to everything – especially security spending cutbacks.

It is time for some serious thinking and talking about policing.

Irish Independent

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