THE year 1996 was one of the worst in the annals of crime in the State. In a short window of time, an unholy nexus of Provisional IRA members and a criminal gang shot dead Detective Garda Jerry McCabe and the Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin. There had been no shortage of warnings about the dangers posed by the increasing threat of these criminals. Inevitably, when it all ended in blood and the tears of the bereaved, we were told criminals would never again be allowed believe the world was so benign that they could murder with impunity. Less than two decades later, history has repeated itself. It will be said that the murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe should not be politicised. But for some reason, a small group of criminals still believe that the world, once again, is so benign that they can murder at their leisure. And it is an unfortunate coincidence that Fine Gael, the traditional party of law and order, finds itself presiding at another moment of challenge to the very authority of the State.
As was also the case in 1996, no one can say that the Government has not been systematically warned by the media. While the minister for justice has busied himself tilting at Law Library and Privacy Bill windmills, nothing has epitomised the return of the lawlessness of 1996 more than the way in which the dregs of the IRA felt free to conduct a paramilitary-style funeral for the common criminal Alan Ryan. What message is sent by such an event but that – in a variation of the light-touch regulation that hollowed out our banks – the State is ceding control of certain lost streets to a criminal class?
If politics is to have any relevance to the lives of the citizenry, the issue of how we deal with crime is a matter for political discourse. The first question we – and more importantly Fine Gael in government– should ask is why are we experiencing a crisis of confidence in crime fighting? Why is it, once again, that under a Fine Gael justice minister – despite what our crime statistics may say – Ireland believes that across the city and the countryside the criminals are winning? And why, once again, under a Fine Gael justice minister, do the citizens feel that their concerns are being disregarded?
The separation between the minister and the citizens he is mandated to protect is all the more surprising, given the passion with which Fine Gael cherishes its reputation, secured during the tense era of the 1970s, of being a party of law and order. Comparisons between different generations of political leaders can be invidious, but the manner in which Liam Cosgrave and Patrick Cooney, the then justice minister, dealt with the security threat the State faced then is instructive for our current leaders.
The freedom of criminals to murder, to deal drugs openly, even on the main street of the capital, and to spend their time out on bail turning vast areas of rural Ireland into a wasteland, also indicates just how far we have moved from the regime of zero tolerance that Fianna Fail promised and typically failed to implement in 1997. The result of this failure means that it is 1996 all over again. It is time for the Taoiseach Enda Kenny to recall how Mr Cosgrave and Mr Cooney did their duty – and to tell his justice minister to wake up.