‘Peo­ple in ru­ral ar­eas need to feel more se­cure in their homes’

Crim­i­nal gangs are rip­ping the heart out of our coun­try­side com­mu­ni­ties, so how will Garda chief Drew Har­ris pro­tect those who are liv­ing in fear?

Irish Daily Mail - - News - By Michelle Flem­ing

‘You need to see the gar­daí around the street’

IT was just af­ter 7pm on Holy Thurs­day and Josephine Far­rell was stack­ing shelves in her shop. It was a busy evening, with lo­cals pass­ing on their way to Mass.

Josephine — who runs Far­rell’s gro­cery shop, Far­rell’s pub next door and the un­der­taker’s with her hus­band in the small Long­ford town of Lanes­bor­ough — was alone, stand­ing at the back of the shop when she saw a man with a foot­ball scarf pulled up over his jaw­line step in­side.

He walked to­wards Josephine, 70, and, as he passed her, she felt a sharp prod in the back.

‘He pressed some­thing to my back and told me “open the till”. He walked me down to the till and I opened it. It was half seven, I’d al­ready done the till so he got around €150. ‘My phone rang. He said: “Don’t an­swer that — don’t move.” I didn’t move. He took the money and all the coins. At the door, he turned around and asked: “Are you al­right?”.’

The at­tacker hopped into his car which was parked right out­side the door and sped off. ‘He had the boot left open so it looked like he was col­lect­ing some­thing and you couldn’t see the num­ber plate,’ Josephine says. She later heard the rob­ber had also held up an­other shop in a nearby Long­ford town.

It wasn’t the first time Far­rell’s shop had been tar­geted by rob­bers over the years. Their home across the street was also tar­geted a few years back. With easy get­away routes on ma­jor roads to­wards Dublin, Roscom­mon, and Athlone, small Long­ford towns such as Lanes­bor­ough, Bal­lyma­hon and Edge­worth­stown and farms and homes scat­tered across the vast chunks of ru­ral coun­try­side in be­tween, th­ese hubs are easy pickings for ma­raud­ing gangs.

Edge­worth­stown has a pop­u­la­tion of more than 4,500, and statis­tics show the Garda sta­tion is among the busiest in the dis­trict. Yet al­though it has 11 gar­daí sta­tioned there, only six may be avail­able at any one time and re­sources dic­tate it of­ten only opens for half days, say frus­trated lo­cals.

Throw into the mix the mass clo­sure of some 139 Garda sta­tions in ru­ral Ire­land in re­cent years, in­clud­ing three in Long­ford — Bal­li­nalee, Ardagh and New­town-cashell — and it’s no sur­prise the scourge of ru­ral crime is a ma­jor prob­lem fac­ing farm­ers and peo­ple in areas up and down the coun­try.

Last month lead­ers from the Ir­ish Cat­tle and Sheep farm­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion (ICSA) and the Ir­ish Farm­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion (IFA) de­scended on the Dáil for a meet­ing to high­light the strug­gle of ru­ral farm­ers and fam­i­lies liv­ing in fear, and to shine a light on the preva­lence of ru­ral crime at a meet­ing of the Joint Oireach­tas Com­mit­tee on Jus­tice and Equal­ity.

‘Peo­ple in ru­ral areas need to feel se­cure in their homes — sadly, many do not,’ said com­mit­tee chair­man Sinn Fein’s Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin. ‘A much greater level of vis­i­bil­ity is needed.’

And on Mon­day night, com­bat­ting ru­ral crime was top of the agenda in Bal­lyma­hon when Garda Com­mis­sioner Drew Har­ris turned up at the pub­lic meet­ing of Co Long­ford’s Joint Polic­ing Com­mit­tee (JPC). Lo­cals were de­lighted he chose their mid­lands town for his first en­gage­ment out­side the cap­i­tal since he was ap­pointed in early Septem­ber.

Ear­lier this year a planned half a mil­lion euro in­vest­ment to up­grade pris­oner pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties at Long­ford, Bal­lyma­hon and Gra­nard Garda sta­tions was put on hold fol­low­ing An Garda Síochána bud­get cuts for 2018/2019. At the time, Bal­lyma­hon Su­per­in­ten­dent Jim De­laney said it would im­pact and put a strain on Garda re­sources, stat­ing: ‘To say I’m dis­ap­pointed would be an un­der­state­ment.’

With money tight, lo­cals weren’t too op­ti­mistic but on Mon­day night, any hopes they had that Drew Har­ris might an­nounce the re­open­ing of small coun­try Garda sta­tions were quickly dashed.

‘What is the de­mand for ser­vices in that area and ex­actly what will re­open­ing a sta­tion ac­tu­ally achieve be­cause that costs money?’ Com­mis­sioner Har­ris told lo­cals, seem­ing to pour cold wa­ter on the idea.

‘We also want to look at al­ter­na­tives — surg­eries out in vil­lages, mo­bile po­lice sta­tions and al­ter­na­tive means of pro­vid­ing vis­i­bil­ity and that lo­calised ser­vice.’

How that trans­lates on the ground re­mains to be seen; Lanes­bor­ough has a busy Garda sta­tion, with around ten gar­daí, say lo­cals. But with shifts and the huge geo­graph­i­cal area they cover — from Rath­cline, New­town­cashel, Kil­lashee, to­wards Long­ford and Keenagh — there’s not al­ways a garda in the sta­tion, or close by, as Josephine found out fol­low­ing her ter­ri­fy­ing or­deal.

Af­ter the hold-up, a rat­tled Josephine ran into the pub next door and rang the gar­daí.

‘I called the po­lice. They took a while. There was no­body there at the sta­tion,’ she ex­plains. ‘I rang them first, then I rang 999. They came even­tu­ally. It took about 45 min­utes to an hour. They were great when they came.

‘I was very shaken, al­though peo­ple thought I should have been worse. It was very fright­en­ing.’

The next day Josephine was back be­hind the till. She says: ‘It’s early in the evening or the day when things hap­pen — not at three in the morn­ing — and that’s why you need to see the gar­daí around the street.’

Josephine’s son Gerry — who works in the fam­ily’s busi­nesses and is also a lo­cal coun­cil­lor — says: ‘Mam was in an aw­ful state, shak­ing. In an ur­ban cen­tre, gar­daí are with you in a few min­utes but here in the coun­try­side, there are hun­dreds of miles of roads. We’ve a good Garda sta­tion but they can’t be ev­ery­where.

‘If there’s two gar­daí on and they’re out in New­town­cashel, seven miles away, they’re gone. Ideally there’d be some­one at a desk all the time.

‘I think more Garda pres­ence — walk­ing, cy­cling and driv­ing around in the cars — and the go­ing back to the lo­cal garda know­ing ev­ery­one and stop­ping in to chat to a farmer or have a cup of tea, that’s been lost a bit.’

With its age­ing pop­u­la­tion, and many farm­ers and el­derly peo­ple liv­ing alone in re­mote, iso­lated areas, cut off from ma­jor towns and close neigh­bours, this part of South Long­ford gives a snap­shot of ru­ral Ire­land’s con­cerns. Money for polic­ing might be tight, but ru­ral farm­ers and fam­i­lies feel for­got­ten. Cer­tainly, they are sit­ting ducks to crim­i­nals.

‘A much greater level of vis­i­bil­ity is needed’

Luke Kelly is 87 and lives alone but for his cat, Mrs Brown, in a small farm­house around five miles from Lanes­bor­ough.

His neigh­bours are scat­tered around the nearby coun­try­side on small and medium-sized suck­ler and sheep farms but Luke is very cut off, down a cul de sac. You re­ally couldn’t live in a more re­mote set­ting.

There are many age­ing farm­ers like Luke, liv­ing alone, get­ting on in years, their chil­dren — if they had any — liv­ing abroad or in big­ger ci­ties like Dublin. Luke is a bach­e­lor all his life and has lived alone since his brother Peter died in 2007

His eye­sight is fail­ing, he very rarely drives and he has needed a zim­mer frame to get around his farm­house since a bout of pneu­mo­nia and a two-month stint in hos­pi­tal last year.

Men­tally, he’s as sharp as a nee­dle and fiercely in­de­pen­dent. I find him sit­ting be­side the turf fire he’s lit in the range this morn­ing. Ev­ery­thing he needs is within touch­ing dis­tance — a box of turf, his rosary beads, his glasses, his news­pa­per, his mo­bile phone and the ra­dio. He has a red panic but­ton tied around his right wrist.

‘Drew Har­ris — now he could be okay — we’ll see how he goes any­way,’ says Luke, who makes it his busi­ness to keep up with cur­rent af­fairs.

‘Wasn’t it Churchill who said if you can face some peo­ple some of the time, you’re do­ing al­right?

‘ I feel safe here. I’ve got my alarm on me. If I push that, the whole place comes alive. They’ll all be on ring­ing me.’

Luke, who pays lo­cal home help ladies to visit him daily, has noth­ing but praise for the lo­cal gar­daí. Thank­fully, crim­i­nals have never tar­geted him.

‘They’re afraid of me — I have a sin­gle bar­rel shot­gun and I’d use it as de­fence to save my­self,’ he in­sists. ‘ They’d have a fierce big job to get in here any­way.

‘A woman Com­mu­nity Garda comes to see me here and she’s a lovely girl — she comes in to say hello. The gar­daí can’t be ev­ery­where — they’re do­ing their best. I see a blue light light­ing up the skies some­times, you mightn’t know they are there but I know they are around.’

Back at Far­rell’s pub, Gerry’s dad re­calls a dif­fer­ent world when he al­ways left his front door open, the keys to his cars in the ig­ni­tion and never needed the gar­daí.

Gerry says: ‘We’re a com­muter town — most peo­ple my age get into their car and leave ev­ery morn­ing for Dublin or Roscom­mon or Athlone so houses are very ex­posed. There have been quite a lot of bur­glar­ies in the area. If they haven’t got boots on the ground, they’re not go­ing to crack it.’

Gerry says lo­cals do un­der­stand re-open­ing sta­tions mightn’t be the best so­lu­tion to com­bat­ting crime.

And they’re hands on, lead­ing the fight with 250 house­holds out of a pop­u­la­tion of 1,400 on a lo­cal text alert scheme in Lanes­bor­ough, an­other 150 homes signed up in New­town­cashel and a sim­i­larly suc­cess­ful scheme run­ning in Bal­lyma­hon.

Gerry says: ‘Catch­ing th­ese gangs is like shoot­ing fish in a bar­rel. With thieves and rob­bers, they know the gar­daí are light on the ground in ru­ral areas and they could be in Dublin in an hour in a high-pow­ered car.

‘We re­alise the vi­a­bil­ity of re­open­ing th­ese sta­tions isn’t a run­ner but we want the main sta­tions well-staffed and well-re­sourced so one pa­trol can fo­cus on main areas while oth­ers are on the road.’

With Cen­ter Parcs due to open in Bal­lyma­hon in July next year, and the added in­flux of res­i­dents and traf­fic, Gerry says more gar­dai and a bet­ter in­fra­struc­ture are vi­tal.

Down in Bal­lyma­hon, Ger­ard Finn, who runs Finn’s petrol sta­tion and Su­pervalu, across the road from the Garda sta­tion, a mod­ern, cot­tage-style build­ing at the top of the town, says lo­cals were im­pressed with the new com­mis­sioner.

‘Drew Har­ris came across very well — it’ll be no harm hav­ing some­one com­ing from the out­side,’ he says. ‘I think he’ll get a lot of re­spect in the force. He comes across as very pro­fes­sional. It all de­pends on the spend­ing the Gov­ern­ment gives him. We’re for­tu­nate in Bal­lyma­hon — we’re well-staffed and they’re very ac­tive, very vis­i­ble with a lot of in­ter­ac­tion. It’s a huge catch­ment area.’

Gerry agrees: ‘It’s a piv­otal point for the gar­daí and with the new com­mis­sioner, it’s a pos­i­tive time and he can make a dif­fer­ence and I think he is that type of per­son — lo­cals were im­pressed. He’s only nine weeks in the job.’

The peo­ple of ru­ral Ire­land des­per­ately need Com­mis­sioner Drew Har­ris to try turn the tide on crime. They want to feel as safe in their homes as Luke Kelly does in his cot­tage — so re­mote, he sees the re­as­sur­ing blue flash­ing lights light up the sky when­ever gar­daí are nearby.

‘I love be­ing at home,’ he says. ‘In hos­pi­tal, it’s like be­ing in jail, you do what you’re told. But I do ev­ery­thing for my­self — no­body handed me a spoon, I’d to get it my­self. I thought I was go­ing to die last year but I didn’t, there’s al­ways some­one look­ing af­ter you some­where. I think it’s Je­sus.

‘I’m not very re­li­gious, no, but I know he’s there. He’s the top man — some­one has to be there look­ing af­ter you.’

‘I have a shot­gun and I’d use it to save my­self’

Con­cerned: Josephine Far­rell with her son Gerry out­side their shop in Lanes­bor­ough

De­ter­mined: Luke Kelly in his re­mote Co. Long­ford home

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