Attacks on the Elderly.

Wednesday, 4 November 1998

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 156 No. 17

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Mr. Finneran: Information on Michael Finneran Zoom on Michael Finneran I welcome the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and thank him for attending to respond to my matter which deals with the need for him, in consultation with the Garda Commissioner, to address the serious public concern regarding attacks on the elderly and property break-ins in western counties. I do not intend to imply that there are no break-ins in [1412] other counties. However, it is my responsibility to highlight the public concern that exists in the counties across the Shannon, particularly County Roscommon from where I come.

As the Cathaoirleach is aware, there has been a series of attacks on the elderly during which their savings were robbed. This has been an ongoing problem for a number of years and in addition, there have been many break-ins. However, the problems have come to a head recently. There have been many attacks and break-ins in recent months and there is a great sense of worry and apprehension in the community, particularly in remote rural areas. Elderly people are very worried and concerned and some are very frightened about the possibility of break-ins at night. They are worried about their belongings being taken but also that they may be assaulted and injured in the attack.

Many small business people in rural areas, including in Roscommon town, have approached me because of the high number of break-ins recently. Almost every village in County Roscommon has been attacked and almost every shop in some villages has been broken into. From information supplied to me, it appears in so far as it can be established by the Garda that the people carrying out the attacks, particularly the break-ins, are not amateurs. They have expertise. In one raid recently, security systems were rendered ineffective. I understood this could only have been done by people with expertise.

I am extremely pleased with the Garda approach. I know most of the people in the Roscommon section personally and they are doing an excellent job. I compliment the officers in rural stations who visit the elderly perhaps once every couple of weeks and reassure them and also the people involved in the community alert scheme.

There is a need to get the upper hand on the gangs who come into the area in high powered vehicles and who are able to evade the Garda in car chases. One of the solutions first suggested by the Cathaoirleach is that the bridges on the River Shannon would be manned during the winter with, if necessary, Army back-up. Last week there was an incident where the Garda had to use the spike system on the road between Athlone and Roscommon to stop a car. The people involved escaped into the woods but they were found with the assistance of the Garda helicopter. The Garda should be complimented on that success.

The Army has an important role to play. This is in conflict with some of the comments made recently on a popular radio programme that the Army should be disbanded. This suggestion is totally out of order. Such statements about the Army which has served the country so well are naive and irresponsible. I dissociate myself from those remarks which were made by an individual whose family may have had a greater allegiance to a different army. However, that matter is for another day.

I ask the Minister, in consultation with the Garda Commissioner, to consider whether any [1413] further response can be made to appease and address the great public concern among the elderly, particularly in view of the long, dark winter nights ahead. It has been mentioned to me that the provision of checkpoints on the bridges over the River Shannon would not only counteract crime in the west but also in the east. A buffer zone is created and the Garda can operate on the basis that criminals cannot get in or out of the area. This is important. Confinement is possible because there is no opportunity for people to move from one province to another. It is a more focused approach.

I appreciate that dealing with the serious crime of attacks on the elderly and break-ins to premises is an operational matter for the Garda. I am the first to admit that fact and I do not wish to attempt to tell the Garda how to do its job. Members of the force are professionally qualified and have been very successful in dealing with serious crime in recent years. They have addressed the problem of attacks on the elderly and break-ins to shops and other premises.

However, there is a great sense of public concern and worry among the elderly, particularly in remote rural areas. Some of these people have premises in small towns and villages and they feel they are very vulnerable to roaming gangs. I look forward to the Minister's response. I hope that, following consultation with the Garda Commissioner, he will be in a position to reassure the people in County Roscommon, County Longford and other remote areas in the west.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to raise this matter and I thank the Minister for coming to the House to deal with it. I look forward to his response.

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): Information on John O'Donoghue Zoom on John O'Donoghue I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I am sure I speak for all sides of the House when I say that I am appalled by any attack on the elderly, whether it takes place in an urban or rural area. Attacks on the elderly are cowardly crimes and I am aware, as someone from a rural area, of the lasting effects one such attack can have on the victim of the crime and those living in the immediate vicinity.

I am assured by the Garda Commissioner that considerable resources are concentrated on dealing with such incidents and bringing the perpetrators to justice. These take the form of special operations at regional, divisional and district level, support of community alert schemes, liaising with local community groups and giving crime prevention advice via local crime prevention officers.

Crime in the western Garda region as a whole, comprising Galway, Roscommon, Clare and Mayo, decreased by 4 per cent in 1997; the Senator may be interested to know that in the Roscommon district the crime rate actually decreased by a very significant 35 per cent in 1997. There are 144 Garda stations in the western region and I reassure the Senator that, with the [1414] northern region, it enjoys the lowest crime rate in the country. In 1997 anti-crime initiatives such as Operation Méabh, which targeted mobile criminals and those perpetrating attacks on the elderly, contributed to the overall reduction in crime. Operation Oisín commenced last month. This operation involves all districts in the region and is based on a series of carefully chosen checkpoints at strategic locations.

In the Roscommon/Galway East division, a special unit investigates break-ins and attacks on the elderly. Attacks of this nature are closely monitored and receive the appropriate Garda attention. While I fully appreciate that widespread fear can be felt among the elderly when these crimes are reported, such attacks are rare and the fear of crime is a more real problem. For example, an analysis of all indictable offences recorded in the entire western region during 1997 indicates that seven offences were recorded where the injured parties were aged 65 or over and were subject to injury or threat.

Statistics for 1998 have not yet been published, but I understand that six such offences have been recorded in the western region this year. I will launch the report of the National Crime Forum in the next two to three weeks. While I have not seen the report yet I am informed that the need for a greater focus on crime prevention and to address the fear of crime are two issues which came across strongly during its deliberations. The Government cares about the elderly and through the scheme of community support for elderly people commonly known as the “alarms for the elderly scheme” a sum of £5 million is available this year for alarms and security devices.

I wish to praise those involved in Neighbourhood Watch and Muintir na Tíre for their valuable work in the support and organisation of the 3,500 schemes throughout the country. In rural areas Muintir na Tíre alone has over 1,100 committees. A research project evaluating the operation of the schemes is nearing completion and I look forward to receiving its recommendations. This evaluation was carried out on foot of a recommendation contained in the Report on the Task Force on the Security of the Elderly.

The five development officers which Muintir na Tíre employs are in the process of organising 175 seminars throughout the country to advise people of the introduction of the euro and the implications of keeping their savings in their homes bearing in mind the currency changeover. I am pleased that my Department will continue funding Muintir na Tíre in 1999 and I hope to increase their funding above the 1998 level. I am aware that Senator Finneran will welcome that.

I assure the House that the safety and well being of the elderly remains a top priority and, in consultation with the Garda Commissioner, I will continue to ensure that all necessary measures will be taken to prevent, discourage and tackle this type of crime. While the number of attacks in the western region was relatively small where the people concerned were subject to injury or [1415] threat, I regard even one of these offences as being too many. I wish to emphasise that any person found guilty of assaulting or injuring an elderly person will not receive early release if sentenced to imprisonment. It is a message which [1416] must be sent out very loudly and clearly and I am glad the opportunity has been afforded me to do that tonight.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 5 November 1998.

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