Rural Ireland - Legacy of fear over acts of thuggery

THE French government could hardly have chosen a more appropriate day to honour the legendary force of nature behind the National Ploughing Championships, its managing director Anna May McHugh.

Yesterday, the French ambassador to Ireland, Jean-Pierre Thébault, presented Mrs McHugh with the Ordre du Mérite Agricole medal for her services to agriculture, on an auspicious day for the championships, when a record 127,000 people made the journey to the mammoth event.

It was an honour well deserved, acknowledging a remarkable contribution to the growth and success of the ploughing championships, from modest beginnings when she became first involved in 1951 to being the biggest outdoor agricultural show in Europe today. It’s been a very long time since she had to field phone calls from men enquiring about the ploughing — insisting that they wanted to speak to her husband because a woman could not possibly be in charge.

Managing director of the event since 1973, she — and with the help of her daughter Anna Marie in recent years — has forged a unique phenomenon in Irish life: a multi-million euro enterprise that brings tens of thousands of rural and urban dwellers, entrepreneurs, political movers, shakers and headline grabbers together in one spot over three days in an alluring mix of business and pleasure.

But while the mood at Ratheniska yesterday was upbeat, it has been against a backdrop of a concern that increasingly permeates rural Ireland: crime, and particularly burglary, too frequently burglary accompanied by violence.

Of course, property break-ins are not something confined to rural Ireland, with urban areas all over the country experiencing increased levels of this particular crime. But many of the most heartless attacks have been in rural areas, often with elderly people being savagely beaten. It is very difficult to overestimate the legacy of fear that such insidious acts of thuggery leave in their wake.

It was not surprising, then, to have the very real worries about rampant burglaries raised during the course of the National Ploughing Championships, with people living in rural Ireland feeling increasingly isolated and vulnerable, especially since the closure of almost 140 village Garda stations.

Indeed, this vulnerability is worsening as successful measures to curb burglaries in Dublin and Cork cities have resulted in gangs simply focusing their attention instead on rural targets where Garda resources are overstretched.

With Taoiseach Enda Kenny admitting urban gangs now use night-vision glasses to travel in the dark to evade gardaí, it is somewhat reassuring that the Government is planning measures to crack down on these criminals.

A pilot project involving the use of CCTV on rural roads is about to be set up and will be rolled out further if successful. However, a long-overdue overhaul of the Garda force should also be a priority, particularly to transfer administrative duties from officers to civilians.

It is also critical that the Government legislates to give the judiciary powers to adequately deal with serial burglar s.

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