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'Garda visibility is the key to reassuring rural communities' - IFA's Jer Bergin


Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan

Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan

Almost a year ago, Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan acknowledged that the fear of crime among communities was palpable, particularly in rural areas.

She made the remarks four months after the launch of Operation Thor, a fresh and heavily resourced initiative to tackle burglaries and thefts in both urban and rural areas.

At that stage, Thor was already yielding good successes with a substantial drop in property crime and significant arrests.

Those successes have continued in each garda division and the big investment in garda cars and equipment as well as untying the purse strings to fund the deployment of additional personnel is paying dividends.

But while the facts and statistics may now be different, the perception and fear of crime in rural, isolated areas has not altered as dramatically.

The vulnerability of elderly people, who live alone in parishes where the nearest neighbour could be up to half a mile away, is still tragically evident.

The death of 90-year-old Paddy Lyons at his home in Ballysaggart, outside Lismore, Co Waterford, last weekend serves as a grim reminder of that vulnerability.

It also underlines the need for local communities to organise themselves to look after their weaker members, who are potentially easy targets for criminals, and to work with the gardaí and other organisations to provide protection against becoming victims.

Kilkenny-Carlow is a typical garda division which has been plagued by burglary sprees in the past but has now got to grips with the top-tier travelling gangs that have been using the national network of roads to prey on isolated homeowners and then return home to their bases in large urban centres such as south and west Dublin and Cork as well as more local criminals.

In the south-east region, the number of burglaries annually jumped to around 3,600 in both 2012 and 2013 but, as a result of Operation Thor, the rate was halved last year to 1,880.

In Kilkenny-Carlow, burglary totals fell from 1,100 in 2013 to 423 in 2016.

"With the additional resources that have been made available, we have been able to set up initiatives that allowed us to intercept the gangs and focus on areas which were being hit by the criminals", the divisional commander, Chief Supt Dominic Hayes says.

But he accepted that the perception of the level of crime that existed in rural areas presented another challenge that had to be met.

"Our top priority is visibility. We have to be out there telling people about the successes and the arrests and advising them about crime prevention and taking steps to protect themselves."

Chief Supt Hayes, who spent the early part of the week overseeing the investigation into the death of Paddy Lyons in the neighbouring Waterford division, was back dealing with local crime issues on Thursday.

He organised an operation, which resulted in 120 gardaí, including 50 recruits from the Garda College in Templemore, lining out at Thomastown station to take part in crime prevention measures, ranging from manning checkpoints around the town to handing out advice leaflets to the locals.

"Visibility is a huge factor in reassuring the community. People like to see gardaí out on the streets and checking on vehicles at roadblocks.

"We also hold public meetings around the division and are getting tremendous feedback from the people. If a person has a complaint, that issue is dealt with as quickly as possible and we attend joint policing committee meetings with local representatives where their concerns are aired and addressed."

He has also set up a burglary response unit, who move into an area that has been hit by crime and interact with the public as well as helping to build up a dossier on those believed responsible for the offences.

Other schemes such as text alert and taxi alert are also keeping the public informed of unusual activity in their area.

His assessment that garda visibility is all-important is shared by Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) national treasurer Jer Bergin.

"There is no doubt that gardaí have become more visible in the past six months and we are encouraged by the announcement of more recruits in training, and an increase in the strength of the force.

"Public assurance is all down to reacting to an alert and the response time involved. Its about being able to respond rather than having a garda sitting at a fixed point."

Mr Bergin says the IFA was campaigning for increased garda policing hours and presence in rural areas to tackle crime and create a greater sense of security in the countryside.

"Community based gardaí are the most effective tool in policing a country like Ireland. The continued recruitment of new gardaí and the allocation of extra personnel to rural areas will go a long way to restoring a sense of security to rural dwellers," he adds.

"This is organised crime. These gangs run it like a business, and when some of the main figures are taken out of the picture, you can see the effects on the ground," Mr Bergin says.

His neighbour and friend, Oliver Clooney has had his quad bike, worth €10,000, stolen twice in the past three years as well as diesel oil, saws and other tools.

"We run a vegetable business and I used the quad to transport the veg around the farm. It was stolen in a break-in three years ago, recovered by the gardaí and then stolen again six months ago.

"It has not been found so far. I took a big financial hit on that but it's not just the money. You also feel different after you have been robbed and it's not a nice experience.

"I think the gardaí are doing a great job after being given the resources but I feel strongly about repeat offenders being granted free legal aid by the courts.

"The sentences imposed on conviction should also be stiffer. It seems, sometimes, that a person convicted of having no car tax or insurance is likely to be treated more severely by the judges than somebody who is a burglar," Mr Clooney says.

Garda Commissioner O'Sullivan (inset) told the Irish Independent this week that Operation Thor, which has resulted in a nationwide drop of 32pc in residential burglaries and 31pc in non-residential burglaries, has meant that thousands of people have been spared the pain that being a burglary victim can cause.

"However, we are acutely conscious of the fear of crime, particularly among people living in isolated areas. That is why, as well as enforcement, Thor has seen increased patrolling with more gardaí on the beat than we have had over the last couple of years.

"The fear of crime is a real feeling and we must give comfort to the community that we will be there when they need us. And this is happening."

Ms O'Sullivan says the latest public attitude survey showed that, in late 2015, over 30pc of people believed crime was a serious problem in their local area. By the end of last year, this had fallen to 18pc.

She pledged that the force would continue to work with the community and local groups to reduce the opportunities for crime and provide reassurance to the public.

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