Friday 19 January 2018

Jerome Reilly: Open season for terrorising the Irish countryside

The closure of garda stations leaves rural dwellers vulnerable to brazen gangs of thieves, writes Jerome Reilly

Did you feel safe in your bed last night? Did you ring your elderly mother first thing this morning to check she is OK -- that she got through the dark hours without hearing the sound of the back door being prised open?

Is your family discussing what to do about dad not because he is incapable of looking after himself on his isolated farm but because you don't think he's safe any more?

Have you ever wondered, for the sake of your wife and children that it might be wiser to leave the car keys in full view on the kitchen table when you go to bed so if they break in during the night, they don't come upstairs?

For the wandering bands of increasingly ruthless criminals it's open season on rural Ireland.

Garda stations are closing -- 39 so far and more to go soon. Huge swathes of the countryside are effectively unpoliced with people reliant on the proximity of a squad car that in the course of the night is expected to provide cover for a huge chunk of the the countryside.

The gangs roll up in cars and vans in broad daylight to pick their targets before returning, maybe not that night but they will be back sooner rather than later.

Sometimes they don't even wait for the darkness. Brazen, more violent than before, they'll siphon off the home heating oil, disconnect the copper boiler in a jiffy; and have the new tractor on the back of a transporter headed east in 10 minutes flat.

And that's the minor stuff.

Last Wednesday, the Minister for Justice Alan Shatter defended the State's record in tackling rural crime and the new policy of shutting down garda stations.

"I am convinced that, in providing a modern, effective police force, our emphasis should not be on bricks and mortar. Up until the station closures which took place earlier this year this State had a garda station network that was mostly unchanged since 1922 and which took no account of modern transportation, communication and policing methods. We must focus on making the best possible use of our police resources so that gardai are out on our streets and in our communities responding to crime and providing visible policing rather than waiting for occasional callers to a garda station," the minister said.

If the minister thinks he is doing a good job, he might take a quick look at Page 3 of the latest edition of the Westmeath Examiner which has taken to documenting the onslaught on their community in one quick easy-to-read column titled: 'Crime in Brief'. There's no shortage of copy.

It recorded a robbery at a business premises in Killucan. The back door was forced, cash taken. At Lynn Industrial Estate in Mullingar, thieves were disturbed last Sunday afternoon as they forced their way into a building via a skylight. They escaped. At St Brigid's Terrace a house was ransacked on Friday evening. In Rochfortbridge, a woman out walking with her baby in a buggy had her mobile phone and her handbag snatched in broad daylight. The thief escaped. Four underfloor heating mats (valued at €600) were taken from a shed at Lakepoint. At Taughmon, a handbag and clothing were taken from a car while the owner was attending a funeral. Lynn Industrial estate was hit again on Monday night. A window and a steel grid were forced and cash taken. Again they escaped.

Small stuff but big headaches for business owners and householders and one would imagine that for the mum with her baby a traumatic assault on her sense of well-being and security in her home village.

Up in Cavan last week gardai were still investigating a number of burglaries -- the latest on last Wednesday week when a couple and their three children were woken by the alarm going off at their home in Oldtown Manor. When the husband went to check downstairs all appeared normal until he tested the backdoor and the lock barrel came away in his hand. The wife believes that her husband's van was the target. Gardai told her a similar vehicle was robbed an hour later, just up the road in Emyvale, Co Monaghan.

Another house had been robbed the previous night in Oldtown Manor. The front door was forced and a wallet stolen before the occupants of the house woke up and disturbed the raiders who escaped. The local Value Centre Cash & Carry centre on the Dublin Road was hit two days before with cigarettes and cash the target though they got away with nothing. St Felim's national school was raided the same weekend. A laptop was taken. Two days before that on the night of October 11/12 Caffrey's furniture store, also on the Dublin Road was targeted. A cash box was taken.

The Anglo-Celt reported a theft in Virginia. When a householder woke up he found the car keys he had left downstairs were missing and his vehicle gone. In the same town equine medicine and other drugs were taken from a veterinary clinic as well as some cash. And thieves ransacked a national school in Dernakesh not far from Cootehill. Not a single arrest so far.

Down in Laois where burglaries rose by 22 per cent in the third quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2011, there's no sign of an end to the epidemic of thievery based on what happened in recent weeks.

The roll call of crime included a raid on the Topaz filling station in Abbeyleix last Thursday week while a red Mercedes was stolen following a house robbery at Clonad. In a separate incident, a range of electrical goods was snaffled in a raid on a family home at Kilminchy just outside Portlaoise. Tools and other equipment were taken from a stone works in the Clonminan Industrial Estate and jewellery was taken in another house burglary at Rosderra Hill.

That's just a snapshot of what happened in three small areas of rural Ireland in the space of a few days. When your home is robbed it's not just your valuables that are taken. Peace of mind is also stolen by those who come in the dead of night.

And all the while the garda stations are closing. The force is being starved of resources and units are covering bigger areas of the countryside. And all the while too, fear rises.

Of course, Eugene Gillespie lived just 100 yards from Sligo garda station when his life was ended violently, senselessly. Eugene died after being viciously assaulted in his own home last month. The pensioner may have endured two days of agony while tied to a chair in his terraced house in Old Market Street. The motive, gardai believe, was aggravated burglary. Someone believed the 67-year-old had money but, as his cousin Catherine O'Donovan noted in a eulogy at his funeral, "there was no need to rob Eugene because he would have given you the shirt off his back".

In June two elderly brothers were tied up for more than seven hours after thugs attacked them and ransacked their home.

Michael Kelly is 82 and Owen Kelly is 80 -- both were assaulted by two men, wearing balaclavas and armed with a shotgun and a knife.

The brothers finally managed to free themselves seven-and-a-half hours after their ordeal had begun at their home in Ballyroe, outside Williamstown, Co Galway.

Their ordeal happened as local people were coming to terms with the loss of the squad car that was taken away from Glenamaddy half a dozen miles away from Williamstown due to cutbacks.

At least six small rural garda stations in Co Galway are to be shut in the next year. Among those under threat is the station in Williamstown, the nearest to the Kelly farmstead.

Sunday Independent

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