Tuesday 23 January 2018

The burglars have gone but the fear lingers on

Locals have begun nighttime checks in a rural area where six pensioners have been robbed and terrorised. Greg Harkin joined one patrol

SAMUEL Roulston sits on a chair by the range in his farmhouse when there's a loud knock at the front door and a voice calls out: "Samuel, it's Tony and Hugh, are you all right?"

Four weeks ago a gang of burglars terrorised the 76-year-old in the same room, threatening him and jostling him as they ransacked his home.

Tonight one of 10 teams of local volunteers are calling to check on Samuel; they want to make sure he's happy with the sophisticated new burglar alarm and camera system which has been installed in his home.

It was paid for by donations from the local community here in east Donegal, outraged that so many pensioners have once again been targets of criminal gangs.

More than 1,500 of them packed into a hall in Manorcunningham two weeks ago to show their support for Samuel and the other victims.

This patrol – and the alarm systems – are the result.

"We had to do something," says Tony Morning, a local businessman who is giving up his spare time – and lots of his work time too – to help.

He's accompanied by Hugh Sweeney, Samuel's neighbour and a nephew of another victim close by.

On Tuesday night and into the early hours of yesterday morning, patrols were able to check on victims and dozens of other residents of a large area of east Donegal. "I suppose I'm worried they might come back next year," says Samuel, a shy gentleman with a pleasant smile.

"It's great to see people calling though. People have been very good."

For Tony and Hugh, reassurance for Samuel and the other victims is what these visits are all about.

"We're not the guards," says Tony. "We have set up a simple network of people who are willing to give up a few hours a week to call out and check with our neighbours.

"We phone them first to let them know we're coming and we do wee security checks to make sure all their new equipment is working okay and that they're happy.

"I was just gutted when all these attacks took place. I know a lot of the victims personally and I took it personally. How could anyone do this to these people? They're our most vulnerable, elderly people living alone, many with no direct families. We had to do something."

As we drive from home to home, Tony's 4x4 is flashed by lights from the side of the road.

"They're LPR cameras," he says, "License Plate Recognition cameras which take a picture of the number plate on your car.

"There's been a good few fitted on private land. It's a good system."

Four hundred metres from Roulston's farm, Katy Sweeney (82) can be seen peering from behind a curtain as Tony and her nephew, Hugh, knock on the front door, which she opens a few seconds later – after being reassured.

She also lives alone in her family farmstead. She was robbed four days after Samuel while she was at Mass, but she was spared none of the fear which comes with a raid.

"They wrecked the place," says Hugh, who has installed lights, cameras and a panic alarm for his aunt.

"They used Stanley knives to rip up the carpets, the furniture and the beds looking for money."

Katy, smiling constantly, worked all her life milking cows.

"I was afraid the first night I got the panic button," says Katy. "But I'm used to having it already. It's great to see the patrols coming. They give me a wee ring beforehand and I have to check now too.

"Two detectives were here too. They were very good. They haven't got anybody yet and we hope they do. It was just terrible what happened. What can I say? What can you say about people who would do the like of that?

"The community has been very supportive. It's made things better but you're still frightened, that's the way it is now. We all used to leave our doors open around here but those days are gone. It's very sad that this is where we are at nowadays."

Tony takes a call on his mobile phone. "That was just Orbit Security; they've been very good, installing these security systems at cost price. Brimac security and Orbit and a host of other businesses really stepped up to the mark to help out," he says.

But what if one of his patrols comes face to face with burglars? What do they do then?

'WE are not vigilantes. Policing is for the guards and while we don't have enough of them, that's it. We've taken advice and that advice is that we can use reasonable force if we have to but we hope that doesn't happen. We'd rather see arrests and convictions," says Tony. "We're the forgotten people of a forgotten county. If six or seven pensioners were robbed in the space of two weeks in an area of Dublin, there'd be a national outcry and government ministers knocking on doors. We've seen no one. The Taoiseach and the Justice Minister should have been here, at least showing some sort of sympathy."

Gardai say they have interviewed a number of people in relation to the attacks. No arrests have been made. Until there is a breakthrough, pensioners right across this part of the country will sleep nervously.

Irish Independent

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