Shatter’s Tricky Task

Posted: March 2, 2013 in Current Affairs
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Between a rock and a hard place

Between a rock and a hard place

There can be no doubt that as a society we are obsessed with crime, from our favourite TV cop shows to the sensationalist glorification of any two-bit hood adorning the front pages of the Sunday red tops. Nothing sets the collective pulse racing like a daring heist or a whodunit murder. Yep, crime sells and the more gory the better.

However, last week’s media coverage shifted the spotlight onto murder’s considerably less-loved cousin, burglary. From Rté’s fascinating interview with Padraig Nally to the rolling coverage of the Oscar Pistorius saga in South Africa, burglary at last seemed to receive a share of media coverage commensurate with its meteoric rise in the latest crime statistics.

Buried beneath the more salacious, headline-grabbing elements of the Pistorius drama is the paralympian’s defense, namely that he shot his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp after mistaking her for a burglar. Whether Pistorius is telling the truth or simply providing the only plausible explanation available to save his skin, the affair has brought the issue of South   Africa’s burglary epidemic to the fore. Such is the extent of home intrusions in that part of the world, that nobody seems to have given a seconds thought to just how violent Pistorius’ actions were, even had they been aimed at an intruder. Seemingly the only issue here is the identity of the victim. Shoot dead your model, celebrity girlfriend: bad; shoot dead an evil burglar: good. In a country rife with extreme violence it is perhaps understandable that the shooting of a burglar wouldn’t bring the entire country to a grinding halt. Which brings us nicely on to Nally….

Six years after his release from an eleven month sentence for the manslaughter of burglar John Ward, Nally found himself the subject of an Rté documentary ‘Padraic Nally: After the Headlines’. Despite constant prodding from veteran interviewer, Charlie Bird, Nally steadfastly rejected several invitations to express remorse for the 2004 incident which would subsequently define his life.

Whilst this lack of contrition may initially seem somewhat cold, anyone who watched the hour long programme would most likely have come to a different conclusion. Nally came across as a frail, isolated man, the type of individual for whom the phrase ‘wouldn’t hurt a fly’ was coined. Nally showed us the squalid outhouse where he kept watch over his modest farmyard, in a state of constant fear. Whilst expressing sympathy for the children of Ward, Nally never came close to issuing anything in the way of an apology for his role in their father’s death. Clearly the farmer believes he was entirely within his rights to protect his land by whatever means required.

When the case first came to light in 2004 it divided the country like few cases of recent times.  The more opportunist news editors attempted to mould the issue into one of the settled community’s relationship with travelers, but the more worthy narrative centered on the highly contentious issue of a homeowner’s right to defend their property. Editorials, phone-ins, television debates – nowhere could a fence-sitting commentator be found. Nally was either a hero who should never have been sent to jail or a cold-blooded murderer with open contempt for the laws of society.

That the Nally case has been restored to the public’s consciousness seems somewhat timely in light of the recent upsurge in burglaries. Whilst the drop in serious crime recorded by the CSO is undoubtedly welcome, the spike in domestic break-ins is most certainly not. According to the CSO, Burglaries jumped 8%, from 25,420 in 2010 to 27,439 in 2011. With over 90 local Garda barracks being closed this year it’s hard to see those figures remaining static, much less decreasing.

So Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter (himself a recent victim of burglary) has the unenviable task of reducing these figures with fewer tools at his disposal. Shatter responded with the much heralded Operation Fiacla, launched in April of last year. However, no sooner was Fiacla launched than it came under attack from Gardai, who slammed the initiative as a sham, with several members of the force claiming it to be “all about massaging figures” and pointing out that “no extra resources had been allocated” to combat the problem.

So with Operation Fiacla’s credibility on the floor how to combat a problem that is in real danger of becoming an all-out epidemic? The most basic method to prevent crime is to ensure a sufficient deterrent is in place. However, with many convicted burglars avoiding custodial terms altogether many would argue the deterrents simply aren’t there. Although judges have the remit to pass sentences of up to 14 years for burglaries, it’s unusual to see them hand down terms of longer than a year or two. Perhaps this tendency to be lenient can be explained by the current state of over-crowding in our prisons, and with each prisoner reputed to cost the state up to €150,000 per annum it’s perhaps unsurprising that judges are reluctant to impose harsher sentences.

Building more prisons might solve the over-crowding problem but with the Government strapped for cash, that isn’t likely to happen any time soon. So what are the alternatives? Well, actually there appears to be only one – another change in the law to further empower the homeowner. Although last year’s amendment in the law to allow homeowners to use ’reasonable force’ to protect their homes was universally welcomed (well, perhaps not by the burgling community!), many feel it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Even with the amendment, a homeowner can still find themselves in serious legal trouble should they have a physical encounter with an intruder – and only then if they get the better of the exchange.

So should Ireland adopt a South African-style approach and encourage homeowners to bear arms, with little in the way of repercussions should they use them? On a surface level it’s hard to think of a greater deterrent and as a solution to burglaries it would appear to be more successful than Ireland’s current strategy of dealing with break-ins. For example, in New York, where homeowners are perfectly within their rights to kill intruders, they have half the number of burglaries as Ireland despite having twice the population.

So, in the absence of tough, deterrent sentences should Ireland implement a similar tactic? It’s tempting to say yes, but the South African/US model is far from perfect. Take the Pistorius case, for example. If, as the prosecution argue, Pistorius knew full well who he was shooting then it’s a black and white case of premeditated murder. However, because of South Africa’s laws on intruders, Pistorius could conceivably avoid a jail term altogether if his defense team are able to convince a jury the so-called Blade Runner might conceivably have thought his girlfriend to be a burglar. In other words, it’s possible for South Africa’s laws on burglary to facilitate pre-meditated murder.

Such are the complexities that face Minister Shatter, who must surely have to go back to the drawing board after the Fiacla farce. Does he advocate tougher sentences the state can’t afford or open the door to a potential blueprint for murder? A rock and a hard place indeed. One thing that is clear, however, is the need for change. With burglaries on a steep upward curve and less resources available to combat the problem, the current state of affairs favours only the burglar. And clearly that can’t be right.

Article first published in Garda Review magazine, April, ’13



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