Crime has taken over as the lead issue of election campaign

Fine Gael has been caught flatfooted over the recent murders, while Sinn Féin is shipping a lot of criticism, says Special Correspondent Michael Clifford
Crime has taken over as the lead issue of election campaign

Sometimes, there’s no keeping the economy going. Fine Gael’s plan to fight the general election on the recovery has hit the skids. Pitching yourself as the rock of stability keeping chaos at bay simply doesn’t ring true when photographs of men entering a city centre hotel brandishing AK-47s dominate the news.

Crime has taken over as the lead issue of the campaign. Two murders, both audacious in their execution and repellent in their brutality, have skewed the pitch. You can have as much fiscal space as you like, but if people don’t feel safe on their streets, they are not going to vote to keep anything going.

The party of law and order has been caught flatfooted. Once it became clear on Friday afternoon that no gardaí had been present at the weigh-in in the Regency Hotel when the gunmen burst in, an immediate response should have been set in motion.

Justice MinisterFrances Fitzgerald should have ordered an “inquiry”. This wouldn’t have amounted to a hill of beans, but it might have dampened the fires that began to break out across Fine Gael’s campaign.

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How come crime reporters and photographers were in situ to keep an eye on the gathering of people associated with organised crime, yet no police were on hand?

That is an operational issue, but the perception is that it’s the Government’s fault. Certainly, there is an issue over Garda resources, but just as important, though frequently less mentioned, is the misuse of resources .

The Garda Inspectorate report issued on policing last December pointed out that at least 1,500, and possibly up to 2,000, fully training gardaí could be taken out of offices to police the country. The report criticised Garda management for not protecting frontline policing, with just 83% of officers on frontline duty compared to 93% in other countries.

While the accountability for that situation rests with Garda management, and principally the commissioner, the perception is growing that, as with so many other areas, the Government has ignored crime while pursuing economic rectitude.

Back in the mid-1990s, at the dawn of serious drug violence in this country, Fine Gael was also the lead party in government and under the cosh.

The murders of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe and journalist Veronica Guerin in 1996 came during a period in which the justice minister, Nora Owen, was subjected to unrelenting criticism from Fianna Fáil. The general election the following year saw Fianna Fáil wrest the law and order card from John Bruton’s party.

This time around, the issue has arisen during a campaign and has the potential to undermine Fine Gael’s message. Throwing €5m at the problem as late as yesterday is unlikely to cut mustard with anyone.

Sinn Féin could also ship damage in the fallout from the murders. Again, the party’s stance on abolishing the Special Criminal Court is generating waves.

In December, party leader Gerry Adams and deputy Mary Lou McDonald raised the court as an issue following the conviction of “good republican” Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy.

The court’s principal brief until the ’90s was to deal with the Provisional IRA and others who had the potential to interfere with juries. Among those convicted in the court was Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris. A non-jury court is far from ideal in any democracy but, in a small, intimate country, there appears to be no viable alternative to ensuring prosecutions are not stymied.

Ordinarily, this kind of thing might not impact on Sinn Féin support.

Even the treatment of sexual assault victims Mairía Cahill and Paudie McGahon at the hands of the republican movement didn’t affect Sinn Féin’s poll standing.

Nor did the arrest of Mr Adams in connection with the murder of Jean McConville; nor even the defence of Murphy following his conviction.

This may be of a different order. Calling for the abolition of a court that is deemed necessary to prosecute individuals who can act with impunity won’t go down well in the working class areas where Sinn Féin enjoys a high level of support. The communities which have been devastated by drugs and related crime know how difficult it is to have some of these people prosecuted.

Sinn Féin’s selective championing of civil liberties on criminal justice may well draw an angry response. That, in turn, could come back to haunt the party when transfer votes in particular are totted up on the day after polling.

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