Cormac O’Keeffe: Pledges galore, but will anything change on the ground?

Security Correspondent Cormac O’Keeffe examines the manifestos to see what they propose for beleaguered communities

Cormac O’Keeffe: Pledges galore, but will anything change on the ground?

The main thing people in communities bearing the brunt of anti-social behaviour, violent crime, gangland feuds and a booming drugs trade will want to know from parties is will things actually change on the ground.

Can they let their children out on their own, can they travel to and from school safely without fearing being knocked down by scramblers, assaulted by other youths, many armed with iron bars or knives, or having to witness open drug dealing and intimidating drug-related behaviour.

Can they themselves feel safe to cycle on pathways without being assaulted and robbed, can they go down to the local pub or chipper without running the gauntlet of intimidating gangs of youths?

At the more severe end, what will be done to stop gang wars and the related drug-debt intimidation, shootings, petrol bombings and murders?

Will policing numbers on the street actually increase and will there be – at a fundamental level and as recommended by the Policing Commission in September 2018 – a complete reorganisation of policing to actually become, in practice, a community policing organisation.

What voluntary, community drug projects want to know is will funding be increased for community projects, will there be a renewed investment in genuine community-state partnership and what will be done to bring drug deaths down?

Youth projects want to know what specifically will be done to try and reduce the number of young kids being pulled into criminal networks, lured by the status and trappings of wealth the drugs trade promises?

All these issues have been graphically highlighted in the first month of this year, not least in the events in Drogheda and north Dublin, with the horrific murder of Keane Mulready-Woods, aged just 17.

So what do the parties promise in this area?

One of the central pledges of many parties is to increase garda numbers – Fine Gael repeating its plan to have 15,000 by 2021.

As a result of austerity under the last Fianna Fáil-led government, numbers were cut from 14,716 in September 2009 to 12,799 in December 2014, with a detrimental impact on communities.

It now stands at 14,300 on foot of the Fine Gael-led government reopening Templemore for garda recruitment in September 2014.

In their manifestos, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin promise 16,000 gardaí – with the former costing it at €115m and the latter costing it at €142m - though neither say by when.

It is also not clear how they plan to increase the annual intake. While recruitment numbers into Templemore were 800 in the first few years after reopening, it was 600 last year and is around 700 this year – in large part because the college and accommodation provision is at capacity.

Concerns have also been expressed at the risk to the quality of training if too many recruits are crammed through – issues previously raised in judicial inquiries.

The Labour Party makes numerous references to increasing garda resources at community level, while both the Green Party and Social Democrats also mention increasing community policing. Solidary-People Before Profit makes no reference to the issue.

Both the Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin manifestos do mention the experience of many communities, with Sinn Féin claiming both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had “abandoned working class and rural communities”.

Only Fine Gael and the Green Party make explicit reference to implementing the Commission on the Future of Policing, which recommended expanding policing to include “community safety” and reorienting divisional policing to serve the community's needs.

Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour make general promises to expand the Criminal Assets Bureau, though the other parties do not mention CAB.

On community safety, Fianna Fáil talk about establishing “community safety networks” in every part of the country, comprising local gardaí and local communities, including the new “Town Teams” and restored Town Councils. How this would happen is not clear, nor the duplication with existing fora. Labour promises to promote local policing fora.

Labour also proposes to set up “local commissions” to deal with violent drug gangs, though little detail is given, and to establish a “gun crime commission”.

Fianna Fáil has promised both a Public Transport Police section and a Rural Crime Bureau, but do not explain how these will be staffed – and from where in the Gardaí they will come.

While the transport police is more specific, a Rural Crime Bureau would appear to be impractical and duplicate the work of existing divisions.

As has been previously aired publicly, Fianna Fáil will also introduce laws which will allow the 'belief' of a Chief Superintendent that an accused is “involved in gangland activity” to be admissible as evidence – modelled on similar legislation to tackle dissident republicans.

There have been problems with this belief evidence in the courts. Other issues might be that gangland activity is far looser an activity that terrorist offences and may be difficult to prove.

There is also existing legislation on being a member of, contributing to or directing a criminal organisation.

Fianna Fáil also plan to bring in laws to tackle those who use minors in drug distribution, something Fine Gael has already promised.

Only Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats have promised to restore or increase resources to local garda drug units, which were heavily hit since austerity.

In relation to young people and crime, the Fine Gael manifesto cites the Youth Joint Agency Response to Crime, which is in early development, but is considered to have promise in targeting prolific offenders aged 16-21. It also refers to the promised Youth Justice strategy on early intervention.

Sinn Féin promises to establish new Garda youth diversion projects while the Green Party will increase the age limit from 18 to 24. The Green Party will also increase funding for youth engagement programs.

On anti-social behaviour, Fianna Fáil has most to say, promising new garda powers, including “public space protection orders”, “disperse orders” and “community protection orders”.

There is no detail on what these are, other than what they suggest. Their legal status is unclear and, as with other powers, it's the ability of gardaí to implement them that is key.

The party also wants to compel parents to attend parenting courses and parents who fail to comply with orders to be fined or have social welfare payments stopped.

The party also wants greater powers to evict anti-social tenants and promises new powers to deal with the dangers posed by scrambler bikes. The Labour Party also promises action on scramblers.

Sinn Féin, which first published a bill on scramblers some years ago, does not include it in its manifesto.

Fine Gael proposes a “forum” on anti-social behaviour and the effectiveness of legislation on it.

Fianna Fáil wants a mandatory minimum 12-month sentence for carrying a knife in public. The lessons from the 10-year mandatory minimum drug sentence and the concerns of the Law Reform Commission are well known.

Again, the issue is enforcement, and the ability of gardaí, given their resources, to enforce existing legislation which already allows for a possible five-year term for carrying knives.

On drugs and addiction, Fine Gael promises a number of measures: support schools on education programmes; 'work' (no more specific than that) with local drugs task forces; open the new supervised injecting centre; expand services for pregnant women; progress the national clinical programme for dual diagnosis (mental health and addiction issues); a general awareness campaign and a new 24-hour helpline for families of drug users.

Fianna Fáil said it will increase funding to drugs taskforces by €6m over the next two years, undertake an education campaign and appoint representation at a senior level from the Department of the Taoiseach to the National Oversight Committee of the National Drugs Strategy.

In addition, it will review the methadone treatment programme as more than 10,000 people are on it.

Sinn Féin promises a minister with responsibility for the drugs crisis who will sit at the Cabinet table. It said it will increase funding to drug strategy and among drug task forces by €12m and mandate all relevant agencies to fully engage with them.

They will increase funding for mental health and addiction and introduce guidelines on dual diagnosis and establish a “No Wrong Door” policy to ensure no one turned away.

The party said they will increase medical detoxication and rehabilitation beds by 20 and ensure structured release into treatment and other services for prisoners.

In addition, they will establish “drug-free zones” of 300m radius around a primary school and monitor prescriptions of drugs.

The Green Party indicates it would decriminalise possession of drugs, and specifically states this for cannabis.

It said it would remove criminal penalties for possessing “less than a week's supply” of drugs. This would, no doubt, conflict with gardaí, who would see this as being used by low-level dealers to operate.

The Green Party also plans to pardon and release “non-violent, minor, drug offenders”, support dual diagnosis, expand low threshold residential stabilisation and increase “drug quality” testing services, particularly at festivals and nightclubs.

The Labour Party said it “will not penalise minor possession of drugs by people who are addicted”, but does not include other drugs users.

It said they would increase funding to local drug task forces, introduce Ireland's first overdose prevention strategy and increase addiction treatment services.

The Social Democrats said it would enact all sections of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, address the “widespread problem” of street trading in, and abuse of, prescription drugs, conduct a “fundamental review” of drug treatment services and enhance the role of drug and alcohol task forces.

In its analysis, Alcohol Action Ireland said five of the six main parties (Sinn Féin being the exception) committed to implementing the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.

Promises aside, communities will wait and see what actually changes.

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