Longford Leader columnist Mattie Fox: Rural communities must be protected against criminal gangs

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Mattie Fox

Longford Leader columnist, Mattie Fox

Elizabeth McLoughlin, and Ollie Keane from Cloghan, Co Offaly, are vets and were burgled twice in the space of five weeks, last December and January.

First time, the robbery cost them over €5,000 in stolen stock and damages. The second one, cost slightly less at €4,500.

Ironically, on both occasions the CCTV footage caught the perpetrators in the act, and they could be clearly identified from same footage.

On the first occasion the thieves popped the door open, and were in and out swiftly after searching for cash; it took them just over five seconds.

This was a professional hit, carried out by guys who had done their research. The second time, the partners weren’t so lucky.

The video showed the thieves targeting the house next door, then coming to the vets clinic, where they made a complete mess.

Five guys this time.

Again the video showed all five of them, one of whom was clearly identifiable.

Elizabeth posted the images on Facebook. Although it was as clear as day the identity of one male who was responsible, no arrests were made,and nobody charged.

In fact Elizabeth was warned that she could be sued or charged for posting the image of one member of the gang online!
Elizabeth was distraught and upset.

“It was five males the second time,” said McLoughlin. “We had a clear CCTV image of them. They even turned on all the lights in the clinic.”

In frustration, she had posted video footage of the thieves on Facebook seeking information and even though 30 comments were posted, each identifying the same man out of the five, nobody has been arrested or charged.

She was even warned that she could be sued for posting the image of one of them online.

“They came in and destroyed our clinic and caused so much damage and they can sue us. It is just madness,” she said. “Five weeks after the first one, I was so angry. It is soul-destroying.”

The targeting of the couple’s clinic is among the many recent instances of larceny and violent incidents in rural areas which have alarmed rural communities.

Crime statistics show that burglaries have declined sharply in the past few years but this is cold comfort to those who have suffered loss or injury.

Richard McKelvey, a Co Offaly farmer, was beaten and robbed by a gang of four men on his farm near Birr, seventeen days ago.

This was the second time in six weeks that Richie has been robbed. The most recent time he suffered facial injuries and was locked in a shed. He is now terrified .....a fifty four year old man.

Elizabeth McLoughlin says “I am terrified of our house being burgled and have been ever since the clinic was burgled. I would never have batted an eyelid before but there have been so many burglaries since then. Every day the phone is going off with a burglary around or suspicious activity.”

Locals feel that the loss of a Garda presence, as a result of the closure of rural stations, means the criminals feel ever freer to come to rural areas and rob any place that takes their fancy.

As a result, local people have no option but to police their own areas, and sooner or later a criminal will be shot, without a doubt.

“I am only 31,” said McLoughlin. “I cannot imagine what it is like for older people on their own. One older person said to me: ‘It is grand for you – you can run.’”

Local politicians are concerned that anxiety could escalate an already bad situation if someone overreacts (?) at the sight of an unfamiliar car pulling into a farmyard or a knock on the door at night.

“I know for a fact that farmers in my constituency are now carrying shotguns and talking about carrying shotguns,” said Offaly county councillor John Leahy, leader of Renua Ireland. “We are not far off the situation where people are going to be taking the law into their own hands. They are fearful of their own possessions and their lives. This is the level and intensity that these criminals are bringing now.”

Leahy goes further citing Operation Thor, the government initiative started two years ago, “helped at first”, but in fact this has now escalated into a situation where criminal gangs are indulging in thefts and aggravated burglaries quite frequently in the past six months particularly. Houses and outhouses are being ransacked regularly.

There is one obvious outcome to all this outrage. The farmers and local people will begin to fight back.

Leahy describes the M4/M6 motorway as “a runway” through the midlands , and rural areas are actually easy targets for criminals who use the motorway as a feeder system.

Fear in one local politician's area, Carol Nolan of Sinn Féin, TD for Offaly and Tipperary North is so great that she heard callers to a local radio station talking about bringing shotguns to bed with them at night.

Ms Nolan is in no doubt that more Garda presence, and more community policing is the only answer. She says that low morale in the rank-and-file Gardai is not helping, as short on resources with station closures, they are being asked to cover a much wider area.

“They are being dragged across a wide area which is leaving small, rural communities vulnerable to criminal gangs and the gangs are aware of that.”

We appreciate that the Gardai, those who are out and about, are doing their best. But there is no doubt about the fact, that farmers and others are quite seriously considering taking the law in their own hands.

I believe that people have openly discussed taking arms, and using them. That’s how grave it is.

I don’t think the government quite realises how serious it has become.

Read more from Mattie Fox: An alarm makes it safer for older people to remain independent