Hey Minister, leave those guards alone

GardaGarda station closures removed the garda from the centre of rural communities, police numbers remain depleted and rural Ireland is abandoned. Why? asks John O’Keeffe.

John O'KeefeThose of us living in cities can often be accused of smugness when it comes to those who eschew rural life. While the country generally may still be suffering economic difficulties, urban dwellers have not fared as badly as their rural counterparts. Yes, hospital waiting lists have improved little but at least city dwellers have easy access to hospitals. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to get your children into a school of your choice but if at first you don’t succeed, there’s always one not too far away. While it is true that violent crime remains high in urban areas at least we have more ready access to gardaí in a crisis – more than can be said for the bachelor farmer in an isolated farm or a young family in a remote village.

You see, there’s Dublin – and then there’s everywhere else. The social narrative is seen largely through the prism of the capital’s media when it comes to education, health and most definitely, crime. An RTÉ Morning Ireland announcement of loose cattle on the road in Tullow is treated with silent derision by urbanites addled with status anxiety. More depressingly, news that a man has been attacked or murdered in the countryside is often parked off in the urban psyche as some feud and certainly of no concern to them.

Yet woe betide anyone who continues to complain about the closure of rural garda stations. Apparently that debate is long since lost and it’s time those people with wellies moved on – no matter that the statistics bear out a worrying rise in rural crime.

For the first half of last year the theft of farm machinery and equipment was the most common crime perpetrated on Irish farms. There were 218 vehicle thefts, 280 burglaries, 261 diesel thefts, 48 livestock thefts and six thefts from persons. In the last three years alone it is believed that that up to 3,000 sheep have been stolen from Irish farms. When a home is ransacked in the city, it naturally creates waves in the community and is taken seriously by the media. Yet, for some reason, rural crime doesn’t grab urban dwellers in the same way.

Many appear to believe there is something more comical or at least less worrying about livestock been taken, or tractors being robbed. No one seems to get the notion that it is the exact equivalent of an apartment been robbed in the city. In addition it also means a livelihood has been affected. This is all further compounded by no local police and a urban media script that says rural crime of this type is simply not as important as its city equivalent. Where a serious violent offence or a homicide occurs outside the main centres, a local feud is assumed and we soon get back to the eternal sunshine of Frappuccino-land.

“Certainly, there are crime categories that are decreasing in rural Ireland, as is the case across the islands but still others, notably violent crimes, are not….”

What part of 139 station closures – primarily in rural Ireland – and depleted garda numbers are we not getting? Undoubtedly rationalisation occurs in all services and policing is not immune. In fact rationalisation can often have a salutary effect on certain sectors and increase productivity. The problem remains however that individual, familial and community safety cannot be commoditised. Certainly, there are crime categories that are decreasing in rural Ireland, as is the case across the islands but still others, notably violent crimes, are not. However any of us can play with statistics – statistics which of themselves, can be wholly inaccurate. What we cannot dismiss however is the palpable fear of crime in rural Ireland coupled with the almost certain knowledge that if some crime should befall you, no garda can now have your back – until it’s too late.

So let us move away from the corporate policing spin to one that deals with human beings and their legitimate fears and hopes. No one can close garda stations and believe that this will be without serious consequences. Firstly, as a matter of fact, this means that gardaí through no fault of their own, cannot be everywhere and cannot reach certain areas in time when a crime has been committed. Perhaps even more importantly, station closures means criminals are aware that certain areas in rural Ireland have not, and will not, have any policing 24/7 as we would ordinarily understand it. This is inviting crime into areas where heretofore it was unknown. This in turn changes the social fabric of villages and town lands from one of community, to one of fear.

Nor does the fact that garda numbers have been severely depleted in recent years seem to have struck the administration as unduly worrying. There is general consensus that in a country of Ireland’s size 14,500 gardaí, at least, are needed to have the necessary feet on the ground. Yet, it appears recent ‘recruitment lite’ has damaged certain memory cells. There are currently fewer than 12,700 members of An Garda Síochána serving (including those on career break and long-term absences) and government would have us believe that 250 gardaí are needed each year to replace those who retire or leave the Force – to maintain the Force at this under manned level. Regardless, even if the government were correct, this figure leaves a Force down from optimum levels in double-digit percentage terms.

Rural Ireland is in turmoil and the heart of communities is been torn not just by the usual suspects of health, education and unemployment but by a far more powerful enemy – fear of crime. Yet because fear is not measurable, we have come to a place that says it can have no home in legislation. We live in a fantasy world where we believe all government and other official statistics on crime  – failing to recognise that by the time these ‘statistics’ reach the civil servants their veracity is often in serious doubt. Many rural dwellers will not now even report crime as they know there will be no resources to resolve it. ‘Hidden crime’ is everywhere and is unreported. Governments will always massage statistics to suit their own agenda but meanwhile in the farms and homesteads of rural Ireland young and old are paralysed to do anything except hope.

Our next administration needs to get a serious grip on the known value of visible, numerically strong, community policing. They need to truly realise that real community fear can be dealt with in the same way hospital waiting lists and school places can be dealt with – through a steely determination and iron will.

If that occurs, rural dwellers may at least be able to sleep at night safe in the knowledge that whatever else happens, the gardaí – as ever – will have their back. 

John O’Keeffe is Director of the Institute of Criminology & Policing Studies at City Colleges and a Teaching Fellow in Trinity College, Dublin.

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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