Tuesday 12 November 2019

Sarah Carey: 'Garda chief has his work cut out to arrest decline in policing'

Victim: Businessman Kevin Lunney has spoken out after being abducted from near his home and tortured. Photo: PA
Victim: Businessman Kevin Lunney has spoken out after being abducted from near his home and tortured. Photo: PA

Sarah Carey

I don't normally indulge alarmist declarations on the state of the country. But last week I was obliged to conclude that we seem to have descended into a condition of general lawlessness. It's impossible to avoid the conclusion that in some areas - I identified four at a cursory glance - policing has been all but abandoned.

I like the cut of Drew Harris's jib, and he and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan are embarking on a sensible programme of reform, but they're up against it.

The four areas I could list without hesitation were fireworks, cycle lanes, drug use and Quinn Country.

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I love Halloween. I love having my sons' friends up to our evil one-off house for a bonfire and a few fireworks. Down in the village, some of the dads put together a show and it's all hugely entertaining. But this year, I was taken aback by the extent to which the kids themselves were charging about with their own supplies. The only people objecting were dog-owners.

Everyone else seemed to blithely accept that teenage kids flinging fireworks around was normal. It is normal; but it's also illegal. So is my private firework party. Everyone's having a good time, but it struck me it's wholesale law breaking and no one particularly cares.

Then there are cycle lanes. Cycling is a healthy, sensible, positive form of transport. Because cycling is the right thing to do and cyclists are so vulnerable, they are absolutely entitled to and deserve maximum protection.

But my Twitter feed is packed with photographs and videos of cars driving and parking in cycle lanes with total abandon - including Garda cars.

A law to combat dangerous overtaking of cyclists is being introduced next month, but unless gardaí are willing to enforce it, driving culture will be slow to adjust to the fact that cyclists are desperately defenceless on the road. The only thing that will change the culture is enforcement. Will we get it?

The third issue is drug use. The current strategy of maintaining addicts on methadone, though endorsed by addiction experts who speak of harm reduction rather than cure, effectively condemns thousands of people and their families to ruined lives. Middle-class recreational users disassociate themselves from the beneficiaries of their behaviour - the criminal gangs who supply the drugs.

So I'm all for decriminalisation and treating drug addiction as a health issue. But in the meantime I work near Heuston Station and walk around Dublin city centre - including O'Connell Street. People are openly smoking cannabis and drug dealing on the street. No one cares. The atmosphere is tense. There's a sense that at any moment anyone can flip out and violence will ensue. I maintain constant vigilance, checking who's around me and avoiding people who look stoned or agitated. I'm not scared - but I'm on high alert. That this should be normal life in the capital city centre is incredible.

The only time I see gardaí is when they are going to and from the courts, a point to which I'll return.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, there is Quinn Country. It's clear that through a combination of unofficial amnesty, intimidation, apathy and lack of resources, the Border region is living down to its original designation as Bandit Country.

We thought they were merely smuggling fuel and cigarettes, but the area now appears to be a vibrant source of people trafficking too.

We used to speak of an acceptable level of violence in Northern Ireland. Has there been an acceptable level of intimidation against the directors of what was the Quinn business?

It is only the shocking assault of Kevin Lunney that finally upped the pressure on gardaí and the PSNI to act. A major operation is now under way. But why did it ever get to this stage?

And yesterday the alleged mastermind of Mr Lunney's abduction died of a heart attack when English police raided his "safe house" in the UK.

Yet it was only last Friday, a sign attacking the directors of QIH was removed by gardaí from a site at Ballyconnell. Cavan County Council refused to move the sign as it said workers were afraid.

It occurred to me that Seán Quinn, since he has said the campaign has nothing to do with him, could have removed the sign himself as a demonstration of his disgust at what is being done in his name.

But on October 31, after Commissioner Harris said he'd have the sign removed, QIH director John McCartin asked: "Why didn't they take it down in the beginning and forensically examine it?" He quite rightly observed that the central issue was not the sign itself but the question of the Border area being out of control. It was let get out of control.

Having said all that, Harris, backed by Minister Flanagan and the Policing Authority, has a plan. Needless to say it's being hysterically opposed by opportunistic politicians and vested interests. But the goal is to get gardaí away from desks and onto the street. The reorganisation of divisions removes a layer of pointless middle management. A big challenge will be to reform the legal system so that gardaí aren't tied up in wasteful court appearances. Our friends the barristers continue to oppose legal reform successfully.

I understand that members of An Garda Síochána are suffering from poor morale. But so are our soldiers, whose fine reputation is intact despite their notoriously poor pay and conditions.

Structural reforms are necessary but can only do so much. Gardaí successfully intimidated the Government into granting pay rises and extras. The least they can do now is their duty.

Irish Independent

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