Tuesday, 24 May 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
I would like to get an indication from the Minister of State on the engagement the Department has had with the National Rural Safety Forum and the work that stems from it. Have there been any initiatives or progress following the meeting of the forum? The last time we raised the issue of rural crime in the House, Tom Niland from County Sligo was in a coma. I am glad to report that he has regained consciousness and is making progress. He is an example of many people living in rural areas who feel very vulnerable. It is important to state that the vast majority of people are safe in our communities but, in many cases, there is an element of vulnerability because they are so isolated. The general public want to see more being done to protect people in our communities.
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter involving the National Rural Safety Forum. As he may be aware, the purpose of the forum is to develop a nationwide network for the distribution of consistent highly-effective crime prevention advice, increase engagement within communities, and prevent and reduce opportunities for crime.
The forum is co-chaired by Assistant Garda Commissioner Paula Hilman and Mr. Brian Rushe, deputy president of the Irish Farmers Association, IFA. My Department is represented at all forum meetings. Other organisations represented on the forum include Muintir na Tíre, Age Friendly Ireland, Foróige, the GAA, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, the County and City Management Association, Active Retirement Ireland, the National Transport Authority, Macra na Feirme, neighbourhood watch, ESB Networks and the Department of Rural and Community Development.
The Deputy may be aware that on 27 April, the forum, supported by the Department of Justice, hosted a national community engagement day for the first time since 2020. It could not be held in previous years because of the pandemic. The day comprised well-publicised meet-and-greet opportunities at more than 300 venues throughout the State where members of the public could engage directly with representatives of An Garda Síochána, IFA branch representatives and other community groups in their area, including receiving crime prevention advice.
People living in rural communities and, indeed, all communities in Ireland, deserve to feel and be safe. My hope is that events such as the national community engagement day can nurture the already strong bonds between An Garda Síochána, community representatives and the people they serve. I was delighted to take part in the day and met with Assistant Commissioner Hilman, IFA president Tim Cullinan and members of the public in Counties Wexford, Kildare and Dublin, during the day.
A key pillar of the programme for Government is building stronger and safer communities. As the Deputy is aware, my Department funds a number of initiatives around the country to help build rural safety. In co-ordination with our colleagues in the National Rural Safety Forum, I intend to develop and publish a rural safety action plan this autumn, which will complement the work of the forum and consolidate the many excellent initiatives that are already under way nationally on rural safety and through the National Rural Safety Forum.
I welcome this initiative and the work that has been done, as well as the collaboration with so many rural organisations that represent people in rural communities. At the core of this issue, as I said as the outset, is the fear many people who live in isolated areas have. When they go to a Garda station to get a form signed, they cannot find a garda. It gives them little confidence that they will be able to get a garda when they are in real trouble. There are issues in large geographical areas where there are only one or two patrol cars trying to cover the area. Having gardaí on the ground in rural areas is the most reassuring measure for people. They should also be gardaí that people know. I recall growing up many years ago, as I am sure the Minister of State does, if you had a bald tyre or a tail light not working, you were afraid you would meet a garda on the road. There is no fear of that happening anymore. It is very seldom that you see gardaí on rural country roads. This is a problem that needs to be addressed. The way to do that is to have the gardaí knitted into and part of the community, so that they are known. People should be reassured that gardaí are there to protect them.
I agree that it is not just about people being safe. People need to feel safe. In a number of the high-profile cases in rural Ireland, the Garda has had a number of real successes. However, we need to get to a point where such incidents are not happening and where people feel protected and safe in their communities. That means targeting those organised groups, many of which rob a number of houses and, unfortunately, carry out heinous acts against very vulnerable people.
The law already treats burglary very seriously. The maximum penalty for burglary is 14 years in prison, and a sentence of up to life imprisonment can be imposed for aggravated burglary. In 2015, the law in this area was further strengthened by the introduction of legislation targeting repeat offenders, including the provision of allowing bail to be denied in appropriate cases. The Act also provides for consecutive sentences for the prolific burglars. The Criminal Justice Act 2007 provides for presumptive minimum sentences for certain repeat offences. The law is very strong in this area. More gardaí were attested last week and, going forward, there will be further attestations in the coming year. An additional 800 gardaí were provided for in last year's budget. The civilianisation of An Garda Síochána continues at pace, which will free up gardaí for other activities.
I am aware of much of that work. I know the aspect of deterrence is important. There are strong sentences in place, but the biggest deterrent of all is having gardaí in a local area where people know them and can see them, and that any stranger coming through the area will see their presence.
Many communities have had to organise initiatives themselves. There have been huge successes with text-alert schemes and community alert in many areas. This is a reflection of the failings of the official structures, that they are not working, and, therefore, people have to come together to do it.
We also need more emphasis on prevention. When criminals drive past a house they are thinking of targeting, if they see that there are cameras, lights on, and an alarm, it certainly deters them. Those kinds of preventative measures need to be put in place. Many people in rural areas cannot afford that. There needs to be consideration of what assistance can be given to help people put those protective measures in place on their properties.
The rural safety forum is a real opportunity for those organisations to come together. Rural Ireland is strongly represented on the forum. Some really good discussions have taken place, from which many good ideas have come. We fund Muintir na Tíre for the text alert system. I know Muintir na Tíre is working on a number of alternative projects as well. We will continue to look at and review any proposals that come forward.
We also have the first pilot local community safety partnerships, three of which have been set up across the country. They are about bringing together the different State agencies to ensure that our communities are kept safe. Keeping our communities safe is not simply about policing and An Garda Síochána. We have to make sure that our communities have those strengths in place, using all the State apparatus to ensure that rural communities are safe and that people feel safe within their homes.