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Concerns that burglary gangs are 'targeting areas they know have little to no Garda cover'

The assaults on two older men in the last week have brought the topic of rural crime into sharp focus.

A garda station in rural Offaly.
A garda station in rural Offaly.
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

CRIMINAL GANGS MAY be exploiting deficits in the rural policing system to target locations which have little Garda coverage, The Journal has learned.

The assaults on two older men in different parts of the country over the past week have brought the topic of rural crime into sharp focus. 

Tom Niland (73) remains in a critical condition in hospital after he disturbed a burglary at his property in Co Sligo. 

Meanwhile, Martin Bagnall suffered serious injuries when masked men broke into his home and stole from him in Kildare. 

Multiple burglary gangs are in operation across Ireland, with many using motorway systems to make quick getaways from the scenes of their crimes.

Gardaí are aware of this tactic and mount proactive patrols of major roads as part of Operation Thor, a nationwide initiative targeting burglary gangs. 

However, many of the gangs are aware of policing deficits in certain regions and are now targeting these areas, multiple informed sources have told The Journal

As a result of the latest attacks on the two older men, groups including Age Action and the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) have called for greater policing visibility in rural areas to ward off any criminal gangs operating in remote regions. 

There are concerns that a lack of resourcing in rural areas is making these regions targets for criminals, particularly gangs seeking to steal expensive farming machinery or tools which they can sell on.

Over 130 Garda stations shut during the economic downturn. Although stations reopened as part of a pilot project in 2017, the vast majority remain closed. 

Independent TD Marc MacSharry this week called for the Government to re-open rural Garda stations to prevent attacks by burglars.

“Obviously being from the northwest and the vicious one we’ve had in West County Sligo brings it all into focus,” he said.

“And government must focus on this, to the extent, to reexamine the short side of the projects of the past where we decided to strip out a physical presence of gardaí.”

Vice-president of the Garda Representative Association, Brendan O’Connor, believes that rural policing has become an afterthought for many in Garda management. 

“Policing in rural Ireland has been in decline for over a decade now,” he told The Journal.

“The decision to close Garda stations and downgrade District Headquarters marked the beginning of a decline that has continued ever since.

“While the association believes every station and unit needs to be properly staffed and resourced, it is unfortunately the case that rural locations tend to lose out in the allocation of finite resources. 

“We have seen a decline in the numbers of sworn members in recent times and this again impacts disproportionately on rural locations, as local managers try to maintain a reactionary fire brigade policing service with less gardaí.

“Promises of more operational gardaí on patrol and visibility never materialised.”

Less visibility

O’Connor says that fewer gardaí responding to calls and incidents over large geographical areas could lead to less visibility and reduced response times. 

He suggested the problem may be further exacerbated by a lack of qualified drivers and, in some locations, a shortage of garda vehicles. 

stepaside garda 285 Stepaside garda station in south Dublin which reopened in 2020. Source: Sam Boal

Many frontline gardaí are not allowed turn on blue lights or sirens on patrol vehicles, as they are not adequately trained. O’Connor suggested that this can reduce response times, especially when gardaí have to travel longer distances to the scene of a crime.

Another implication of this restriction is that officers are prohibited from following a suspect who chooses to exceed the speed limit. 

“There is a fundamental flaw in a system that stops a police officer from following a suspect fleeing from a serious crime or even signaling them to stop,” he added. 

Members of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) will meet with Assistant Commissioner Paula Hillman next week to discuss policing issues. 

The group’s deputy president Brian Rushe said that recent attacks on elderly people in rural communities were very concerning. 

“Whatever resources are needed to assist the gardaí in their work have to be made available,” he said.

“We will be encouraging the farming community to provide whatever help they can to support the work of the gardaí. Apprehending those responsible requires a co-ordinated response.”

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‘Nobody should feel under threat’

Rushe also described the impact of attacks in the wider community, beyond those who were the targets of crime.

He explained that attacks on elderly people in particular created worries among those in rural areas, and highlighted the vulnerabilities of living in rural Ireland. 

“Nobody should feel under threat in their own home,” he said.

“These attacks bring fear into the community. It takes away that sense of comfort and that’s a real loss. People who have been living in the same place their whole life suddenly don’t feel safe there and that itself is a tragedy.”

Age Action, a charity representing older people, likewise said it does not want the recent attacks to cause panic among the older population. 

The group’s spokeswoman Celine Clarke said it is important that people in the wider community take responsibility for each other and to be aware that “everybody is a possible victim – not just older people”.

“In our experience rural communities are very tight-knit,” she said.

“While they are well spaced out in terms of their houses, they do all look after each other. They will have contacts for their neighbours but the most important people to call if there’s an incident is the gardaí.”

Clarke said Age Action had heard from older people in rural communities who do feel more anxious and that services aren’t there.

“People do feel under threat, but it’s important that we don’t cause panic especially as older people are coming out of Covid,” she added, reiterating calls by the IFA and GRA for greater Garda visibility in rural areas. 

Investigations into the attacks on Tom Niland and Martin Bagnall are continuing. 

An Garda Síochána was contacted for comment. 

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