Wednesday 21 August 2019

Patricia Casey: 'We are not such a caring and gentle nation after all'

Assault: Tega Agberhiere, an U17 football international, was one of three teenage boys attacked with a corrosive substance in Waterford
Assault: Tega Agberhiere, an U17 football international, was one of three teenage boys attacked with a corrosive substance in Waterford

Patricia Casey

This has been a bleak week for serious crime in Ireland. We have seen tragedy unfolding before our very eyes. The trial for the killing of one man by another, borne of a lover's jealousy, is the latest example. Pat Quirke was found guilty.

In the broader picture, we see gangland killings continue to rise. In 2018 there was an 11pc increase compared with the previous year. We saw acid thrown at a young man in Waterford last weekend and he now requires major surgery, while ATMs are being yanked from walls using tractors and diggers.

Violent crime also seems to be rampant among young men, with knife crime a particular problem. The stories make for harrowing and even psychologically troubling reading. Others, such as the theft of ATMs, may appear 'Father Ted'-like in their absurdity but their knock-on effect, if the culprits are paramilitaries, will be anything but, and could cost lives.

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Our impression of a rising tide of crime is not "fake news". The Central Statistics Office records a rising rate of serious crime for some years now. It is tempting to hide behind the simplistic claim that it is due to better reporting and improved data collection. Others say the figures are unreliable because the data may not be coded correctly on the Pulse system operated by gardaí. Whether the figures are an over- or under-estimate, or perhaps accurate, there is a clear upward trend that has been reported for several years.

Homicide is the only one which appears to have reduced in 2018 compared with 2017, although this data was published "with reservation", meaning the data may not be reliable. An internal review led to an increase in the number recorded as homicide in 2017 as some deaths were reclassified.

In 2016, a report in this newspaper ran with the headline "Republic of Ireland is the deadliest place to live in Irish and British Isles - new figures". This report was based on an analysis of the Irish homicide rates from 2005 to 2015. It calculated a six-times higher risk of being shot dead in the 26 counties compared with Northern Ireland, England or Wales.

Dr John O'Keeffe, head of psychology and criminology at City Colleges, Dublin, believes a person was more likely to be killed in the Republic of Ireland than in any of the islands in the western seaboard of Europe.

The data also showed the per capita rate of incidents in which a firearm was involved from 2005 to 2015 was 0.064 per 100,000 per annum for Scotland; 0.204 for Northern Ireland; and 0.075 in England and Wales. Incredibly the rate in the Republic, at 0.437, was more than double that of Northern Ireland and almost six times the English and Welsh figures.

The trend in violent crime represents some feat indeed for what has always been regarded as a peaceful, caring and friendly nation. We might extend the 'céad míle fáilte' to visitors but it seems that, among ourselves, we are cold, harsh and murderous.

At a human level, the reports are becoming more harrowing and distressing to listen to. However, there is a grave danger that as we become familiar with the stories behind murders we will acclimatise to the new statistical reality. And we may succumb to hopelessness, despairing that things can ever change.

But crime can never be prevented if the causes are not understood.

Criminologists have been deliberating this question for decades. The causes are complex and relate to social, personal and ethical values. These could include social exclusions such as poverty and unemployment.

Personal factors might include drug misuse, family structure or poor role models, while ethical values would focus on changing attitudes to right and wrong, individualism, religious attitudes and so on. Clearly these overlap and intertwine to a degree. Apart from social exclusion, a very broad concept, we are not likely to identify any quick or lasting solutions in the near future.

Time was, when we in Ireland, as elsewhere, idealised the past as gentle and caring and bemoaned the problems of the present.

We were berated for this and accused of hiding our problems behind walls, either psychological or physical. Over time these defences were torn down in the name of openness, as modern Ireland approached.

The problems they concealed were now on display, in full view, and we apologised abjectly for them. We were told a new inclusive, progressive Ireland had now arrived with an outlook which valued all members of society.

The psychological tool of idealising the past and demonising the present has been turned on its head in recent times by our political and social leaders who now demonise the past and idealise the present. The present spate of killings and violent crime should cause us to pause from our self-glorification and ask if we are truly as inclusive and progressive as we think. We should inquire of the families of the victims of the crimes we have read about in the past week if they celebrate the prevailing direction of the new Ireland. I think I know their answer.

Irish Independent

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