OPINION: Rural counties like Offaly are a haven for roving criminals
The story of Richie McKelvey, a 54-year-old Offaly farmer, getting pulled from his home and mercilessly beaten in his own yard has struck a chord with the entire country in November 2017. It's a story that shocks many, writes many headlines and yet is then forgotten, segmented away into news archives.
That's the sad reality of cases like this because change is slow in coming, and people in power shrug and say, 'what can we do; these things happen.' That is little consolation to people like Richie McKelvey, who lives alone in a rural area near Brosna, a beautiful place that has become outlaw country.
These places around Ireland are now a haven for roving gangs of criminals preying on the vulnerable, a virtually invisible threat looming like a vulture in the shadows of a Baobab tree. It was hard not to be moved by the words of Richie's sister, Annette Meacle, who said, "the world seems to come alive in the dark in rural Ireland because they know the fear that's there."
Annette put the nail on the head with that statement as she called for the return of community gardaí and the installation of cameras around the motorways.
If these criminals came off the M7, as is believed to be the case, and made their way down the N62, then the they further ventured away from watchful eyes. Once they'd cleared Roscrea, they had miles of dark roads to weave their way to the home of Richie McKelvey, the freedom to beat and rob him, and leave without a trace.
That's something repeated up and down the country, and as one of the most rural counties, a blight on the landscape for many here in Offaly. We could be looking at a fatality here, especially given the fact that this was the second attack on the same man's home in a six-week period.
So, do we put incidents like this down to isolation, pawn them off as inevitable owing to the location, or do we call it out for what it is - a policing issue? Public services like An Garda Síochana should be there to protect the entire public, and not just those with an urban address.
When austerity set in here and Garda stations closed, rural Ireland was the first to be hit and remains the hardest hit. As each of those lights went out at stations around Ireland, criminals stepped into the darkness left behind, and made those areas their new hunting grounds.
Offaly needs gardaí in the countryside, not just Tullamore, because Offaly people do not echo the recent thoughts of Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, that burglaries are on the way down in Offaly. Recent months have highlighted the problem with those in rural Ireland forced to wait for Gardaí to travel up to 20 miles to get to them.
Therein lies our problem - the complete disconnect between policy-makers and people living in fear in rural Ireland. Where once they might have known the guard in the local village station, they now feel abandoned, isolated and afraid. Whether or not they are broken into or attacked, the fear itself is enough to petrify them, and that's not good enough.
It's not good enough to say that rural Ireland is hard to police. Of course a disjointed and sprawling community is hard to police, but it's not impossible. Ireland needs a return to community gardaí for two reasons.
The first is for the sake of these isolated people. Visibility is important to them, particularly the elderly, who stand no chance of defending themselves against an aggravated burglary. Seeing a patrol car passing by their door from time to time would certainly offer some reassurance.
The second is to act as a deterrent to criminals. If they see patrol cars on the roads as they are lurking around rural communities, they may be less likely to commit crimes in that area. It's not a definite but it's fair to assume if the gang that attacked Richie McKelvey in his home met a Garda car on their way to or from the scene, the outcome may well have been different.
People need to see resolutions. They read about these crimes in their local newspapers, or they chat about who has "been done" in the shop or Post Office. They rarely read headlines about these criminals being caught, and even less so about them being jailed.
The government needs to re-think their policing strategy in rural Ireland. As they refill urban stations with hundreds of young gardaí, they may want to be reminded that they'd be better served re-opening community stations in places like Offaly - that shadowy place in the heart of Ireland where criminals roam freely, terrorising good people like Richie McKelvey in their own homes.
Is it too much to ask for the lights to be turned back on in rural Ireland?
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