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  • Senator Sharon Keogan

Senator Sharon Keogan — Public Order and Safe Streets

I thank the Minister of State very much for coming to the House today. This session on public order and safe streets has been a long time coming. As usual, it takes a viral tweet to get the Government to address something, but let us not pretend that the abysmal state of public order on the streets in many locations in the greater Dublin area is a recent development. There has been a steady decline in the standard of public order in recent years, largely linked to specific locations in and around the capital, and the people in these communities and the people who are exposed to and suffer from this behaviour are sick to the teeth of it. No one should have to live in fear in their own neighbourhoo having to stay in after dark; making sure they are not walking alone; and having to change routes because they see a gang further down the street. This is shocking stuff to have in Ireland in the current year.

There are a number of ways to tackle the issue. As always, prevention is the best medicine. Some people will point to these areas as "socially disadvantaged, and subject to historic disinvestment", but funnelling Exchequer funding into an estate does not necessarily change a problematic subculture. If the Government is serious about solving this issue, its policies must acknowledge the existence of particular generational subcultures and patterns of behaviour in these areas. Shying away from this recognition for fear of being accused of not being politically correct will result in an inability to tackle the problem in any lasting manner. I urge each and every person in communities affected by gangs and criminal violence to play their part, whatever that may be. The Government has a responsibility to act, but even with double the number of gardaí we have now, there will never be as many boots on the ground as there will be if every citizen plays their part. That will look different for everyone, but it starts with children. Parents must ensure their children are not engaging in antisocial or violent behaviour, and other adults in the community have a role to play in correcting behaviour they see, and must be encouraged and supported in this.

Communities need to come together and decide what they want to be. They need to take their streets back. What that looks like will vary. I know of some housing estates that set up night-time civilian beats to stop specific crime waves in the area. It should not have to be that way in this First World country, but it is. Members can make of that what they will.

Councils must look at the physical layout of their areas, install community lighting and ensure that common or green spaces are not inadvertently contributing to the formation of large gangs of persons engaged in antisocial behaviour.

At the end of the day, so much of this should be done by An Garda Síochána. I am sure the gardaí who are out on the beat in these areas are doing wonderful work in keeping our communities safe and secure and keeping the peace but there simply are not enough of them. This year, the force hired 94 new recruits, down 75% on last year when we had 385. The 2022 target was 800. One might see these figures and think that no one wants to be a garda anymore but that is not true. More than 11,000 people applied since the last competition was opened in April of last year. Since then, just over 20 recruits have entered the college. That disparity points to the existence of serious flaws in the Garda recruitment system. This must be examined as a matter of urgency if the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner are to have any chance of tackling the issues we are discussing here.

Covid restrictions have borne most of the blame but there are also reports of a significant number of applicants failing to pass the fitness tests involved. Does this make sense to anyone? We have 11,000 people who want to be a garda. We need 800 of them and we have 94 and yet we are turning away people because they cannot do enough push-ups. I do not want weak or unfit gardaí either but can we not train them, perhaps? I am not certain of the entry process, but one would think that an intensive bootcamp would be enough to get many of these potential recruits over the line when it comes to the fitness test. Is this something that exists? If not, why not?

The Minister secured funding for 1,000 additional recruits in budget 2023. What plans are being put place to see that enough men and women are recruited to spend that money on? The Garda Representative Association, which has around 11,500 front-line members, has repeatedly said there are not enough gardaí to provide a proper policing service. Is it any wonder that we see those scenes online? Gangs of youths are roaming the streets, either on BMXs or joyriding cars, and laying on women and working immigrants. It is a fine advertisement for our capital city internationally.

One aspect of this debate that has not been touched on is self-defence. If you are attacked on the street, you are in a self-defence situation until some bystander either steps in to even the odds or calls the gardaí who have to travel there. One can suffer a lot of harm in five or ten minutes. It could be fatal harm. Does the Minister have plans to strengthen laws allowing people to defend themselves whether on the streets or in their homes. When one is being attacked, it really of little consequences what one’s surroundings happen to be. Should women walking alone at night be allowed to carry pepper spray to defend against would-be attackers or rapists? The Government says "No". What about an extendable baton? That also illegal. Of course, do not dare reach for that kitchen knife as the thug who broke into your home bears down on you. You are supposed to call the police, and wait patiently while one or two of our 94 new recruits drive over to you, during which time your attacker can do whatever damage they can. It is all symptomatic of the nanny state approach of successive Governments. The common folk cannot be trusted to do the right thing, so the Government has to do it for them. Whether it is Covid, climate change or the use of force in defence, the State in its wisdom must control and mandate, leaving little room for the individual to decide for themselves.

There is a growing desire in this country for a Minister for Justice who is tough on crime. That is real, violent crime rather than someone saying words online that might hurt someone's feelings. We all know by now that playground adage about sticks and stones is untrue. Words can and do hurt but sticks and stones are still out there and they are being used on innocent people in this country. One could poll the country to ask people if they would feel safer knowing that a pair of gardaí were walking the beat around their neighbourhood or sitting on Twitter eight hours a day and knocking on the doors of people who were mean on the Internet. I believe the answer would be quite clear cut.

If we want safer streets, the path to them is more gardaí and to pay them right. Pay them more. There should be more hands-on community prevention and we should allow individuals to defend themselves. I look forward to seeing these plans actioned.

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