Politicians have been talking tough about crime. Some progressive measures have been promised but none that will win a great number of votes writes Michael Clifford
For many political entities, there appears to be one overriding theme in relation to justice during election campaigns. Talk tough. Tough on crime, tougher on criminals.
Maybe here and there throw in something to show you’re tough on the causes of crime, but the main thing is to be so tough that you are reaching out to feel the voter’s anger.
In this election, the big three — formerly the big two until Sinn Féin’s ascent in opinion polls — are mad as hell in their attempts to feel the anger.
Fianna Fáil, for instance, wants you to know that they will change the law to allow in evidence the opinion of a chief superintendent as to the guilt of a suspect.
Fine Gael are sticking it to the criminals by increasing the number of prison places. And Sinn Féin is allocating money to the prison service specifically to tackle the problems of gangs in prisons.
The last proposal sums up a lot of the verbiage in this area at election time.
The Shinners’ manifesto pledges to “increase prison service annual funding by €19.5m to enable disruption of activities and recruitment by organised criminal gangs”.
Note the figure to be allocated. It’s next to impossible to discover where they came up with such a specific sum. Was it that in the overall spend plans a sum just short of €20m was sitting around and somebody thought it would send a good signal to use that against prison gangs?
Note also that it’s not a case of allocating the money to prison service management to determine how best it might be spent, but is instead for a specific electorally-friendly get-tough policy.
To be fair to the Shinners, they are also the only party to propose the establishment of a sentencing council. This would provide for input from civil society into sentencing guidelines, cutting down on controversial sentences that undermine confidence in the system.
Fianna Fáil’s most controversial proposal is the plan to introduce the evidence of a chief super in trials involving gangland crime.
This was first announced in the wake of the horrific murder of Keane Mulready Woods last month. A similar power was used under the Offences Against the State Act to identify members of paramilitary subversives.
The opinion of a superintendent that a defendant in court was a member of a terrorist organisation was repeatedly used during the Northern troubles.
Expanding the power in this manner could be tricky.
In the first instance, it would be open to constitutional challenge. There is also the problem that chief supers’ knowledge of individuals’ activity would come through to them second hand from a subordinate.
Guards in senior management are rarely in touch with what is happening on the ground simply because they have enough to be getting on with in their management roles. So a court would effectively bereceiving an opinion second hand.
Both Micheál Martin and party justice spokesperson Jim O’Callaghan have said that if there is a constitutional problem they would put the matter to a referendum.
This is highly unlikely.
Chalk this measure down as one that will disappear into a black hole through, if necessary, a process of review of some nebulous legal opinion.
The aftermath of the death of Mr Mulready Woods also prompted Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald to state that the party would “review” its long-standing opposition to the non-jury Special Criminal Court. Any such review is absent from the party’s manifesto which prompts speculation that the apparent shift was a top-of-the-head measure to close off any talk that the party is soft on crime at a sensitive time.
Fine Gael would appear to be concentrating so much on the economy it forgot to throw out a few promises to remind people it was once the law-and-order party. The only pledge to demonstrate their toughness is “to increase prison capacity” at a time when the preponderance of penal thinking involves restricting the use of prison.
Another theme common to both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin is the setting up of new garda units. This would involve imposing these operational units on the garda commissioner, irrespective of his plans to modernise the force.
For instance, Fianna Fáil wants a dedicated transport police, while Sinn Féin is promising a unit to tackle insurance fraud. The Soldiers of Destiny also have provision for a rural crime unit in its manifesto.
When asked about this unit at the manifesto launch, Mr Martin appeared to water its status down to a “forum”, which is basically a talking shop. However, in the seven-way TV leaders’ debate on RTÉ, he appeared to be describing it as an actual unit within An Garda Síochána.
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris must find all of this amusing. If he is forced to set up any of these units, even against his better judgement, will he also have to provide a minimum number of staff?
Otherwise, he might just go along with the political policing and staff the new units with skeletons or dullards.
Fianna Fáil has also managed to resurrect a measure that once upon a time was the first thing you reached for to sate anger.
The party has a proposal for a mandatory minimum sentence for offenders caught with a knife. The Law Reform Commission has opined that these kind of sentences are completely useless in cutting down on crime, but quite obviously Fianna Fáil feels that it still sounds the business and that’s all that matters.
Some of the smaller parties are attempting to tackle crime through evidence-based research rather than the channel of anger.
The Labour party wants to deal as much with the causes of crime and proposes to develop supports to keep young people in marginalised communities on the right track.
The Social Democrats is putting an emphasis on community policing. And People Before Profit is pledging to reach for the stars by ending the system in which the higher courts are only accessible to the wealthy and also putting a stop to the state forking out €500m to private legal firms.
For the greater part, justice and crime are not major issues in this election. The savage murders at the outset of the campaign — including that of Cameron Blair in Cork — prompted some of the parties to reach for an eye-catching measure. Since then, normal fare has resumed.
There are one or two progressive measures promised, but nothing that is going to win votes in any great quantity.