News Colum Kenny

Wednesday 17 September 2014

We can elect politicians to change and enforce the law

Published 21/12/2008 | 00:00

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TOUGH JUSTICE: Detective Sergeant Jim 'Lugs' Branigan, unusually behind a typewriter

A MAN stabbed to death in Galway. A woman bludgeoned with a brick in Howth. Staff locked at gunpoint into a strongroom in Wicklow. A young woman murdered in Ranelagh on Wednesday night.

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Some said last week that you are less likely to suffer deadly violence in Ireland than in many other countries. But it does not feel that way.

Ireland is a small island. We do not have to be stumped when it comes to enforcing the law, and doing so fairly across every social class.

It can be done. There will always be some crime, no matter what. But there are better ways of dealing with it. Where there's a will, there's a way.

As the economy cuts up much rougher financially in the months and years ahead, there is likely to be more crime and violence. Whether it is gangs on poor housing estates arming themselves to the teeth, or rich chancers riding roughshod over legal requirements, law-abiding citizens are likely to get it in the neck.

If, as a journalist, you talk about crime, you risk being condemned as sensationalist. Express concern as an academic and you are scorned for creating moral panic. Garda statistics are cited against you. But statistics do not tell the whole story.

Many charges and convictions are for minor offences. From heavily armed criminal gangs that terrorise estates and get away with it, through violent crimes against women that are never registered, to the politically corrupt or financially privileged who escape lightly or scot free, those who inflict injustice on others in Ireland have a good chance of escaping legal consequences. And, if they are convicted, the punishment frequently does not fit the crime.

There are three parts to the problem, and the political party that manages to make an issue of these will be rewarded by voters. First comes enforcement. Then punishment. Then justice, across all social classes.

But where are the strong political voices? The Greens have been silenced since joining Fianna Fail in government. Sinn Fein has been muted since its disappointment in the last general election, hoping perhaps to jump into bed with Fianna Fail if the Greens ever cut and run.

Last week came a reminder of Sinn Fein's own problems in cracking down on crime, when the unsolved murder of Private Pat Kelly by the Provisional IRA was recalled in Co Westmeath.

Labour has shown some signs of life recently, but is divided on future strategy. Fine Gael, unfortunately, seldom seems able to do the law and order things without sounding like a bunch of Blueshirts. The problem is not just about cracking down on working-class criminals or throwing money at equipment. It is also about creating a sense of justice in society.

Enforcement of the law in Ireland often seems mysteriously difficult. There will be some complex reason why Garda computers cannot be got to work, speed cameras not put in place, the lives of thugs not made unbearable, rogue food processors or major tax evaders not put in jail, wealthy chancers not brought to book.

Laws are riddled with loopholes that are seldom quickly plugged, yet neither those who drafted them nor those who passed them must account for their inefficiency. Some local judge may come up with a bizarre reason for throwing certain cases out of court, but will stay on the bench. The Constitution is invoked to protect criminals in ways that were never intended, yet voters are not asked to change it (while sustaining civil rights for the innocent).

Even when people are caught, their chances of being prosecuted are limited -- and, of being convicted, even more so. When they are convicted, many get light prison sentences -- and then do not even serve all of these. Last week, in London, an 18-year-old was sent to jail for "life" for the cold-blooded murder of an 11-year-old Liverpool boy, Rhys Jones. He was told that he must spend at least 22 years behind bars.

Here he might have got life, too, but be would be free after six or seven years.

Reports of the Liverpool case included video footage of the killer laughing at police during a search of his home. It was reminiscent of the way that young gang thugs here routinely mock gardai. But the English youth is not laughing now.

Back in 1993, Senator John Dardis recalled an earlier way of dealing with crime: "As a university student, I recall seeing Garda Jim 'Lugs' Branigan in the Olympic Ballroom. He parted the hordes like the Dead Sea to take three people who were in front of the bandstand into the back alley and rendered his own justice. Nobody protested. I am not suggesting that we return to those days, but I believe that the balance has gone too far in the other direction."

There is an Irish gormlessness about how we are stumped when challenged to deal with crime effectively. And a predictability about the outcome of many cases.

No doubt Judge Michael White was absolutely correct earlier this month when he decided not to force Galway Councillor Michael Fahy to spend any more time in jail than the seven months he had already served.

Sure, Fahy is only a public representative who had deliberately defrauded the public of €7,000.

Knowing the wisdom of the Irish system, I would have bet my house on Fahy not doing more jail time. Sure, wasn't there an old mother somewhere? And, sure, aren't they all at it and wouldn't we all be if we got the chance?

Well, no actually.

But there has been and is a sort of casual corruption in Ireland where people of a certain social class or political bent make free with public resources and the law.

The Dublin Castle tribunals turned into a circus not because there was no corruption, but because that Irish gormlessness about enforcement allowed them to be badly designed and become a bonanza for lawyers.

The tribunals have barely scraped the surface of planning corruption in Ireland. Meanwhile, other forms of political corruption continue -- involving job appointments, for example.

Buried inside a national newspaper last week was a report that most immigrant restaurant workers are not paid the minimum wage. It is probably just the tip of an iceberg. People who exploit them are breaking the law, to their great personal benefit. They make far more money from doing so than someone who nicks a few items from Dunnes Stores. But they are far less likely to go to jail.

Across the board in Ireland, there is a failure to enforce laws and regulations. The attitude towards regulations is now costing taxpayers billions. There will be soft-landings all right in the coming economic crisis, for those who have been well-got.

We do not have to put up with crime. We can elect politicians who will change the law where necessary and enforce it more rigidly and more punitively.

In that way, those who live within the law and who run honest businesses can at least feel that the society in which they live is democratically theirs -- that it does not belong to the armed gangs, bullies, rich chancers and political cynics.

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