With increasingly skilful rampages being waged against retailers who are already highly security-conscious, Gillian Hamill asks whether the government’s much-flaunted ‘Operation Thor’ will do enough to tackle the gangs prepared to wreak havoc on livelihoods
17 December 2015 | 0
‘The hole in the roof gang’. It may not sound like the most ominous of gang monikers, but unfortunately Ireland’s retailers are only too well aware that a visit from this sophisticated criminal operation could spell devastation for their business.
Worryingly, some reports state the Eastern European gang believed to be responsible, has been military-trained. Over the past few months, the hallmarks of robberies carried out by the mob, have been noted at sites as diverse as Dromore West in Co. Sligo to Glin, Co. Limerick and as far as Co. Wexford, with countless more occurring elsewhere this summer.
Skilled criminal operators
Retailers who were already highly security-conscious with expensive alarms and CCTV systems installed on their premises, have been dismayed to find that these efforts have failed to foil the highly skilled thieves.
Two such retailers who were affected, discussed their experiences on Joe Duffy’s ‘Liveline’ show on 28 October. Blair Feeney, the owner of Feeney’s supermarket, petrol station and bar in Dromore West, Co. Sligo, described how the thieves, making their way from the rear of the premises at 1am in the morning, managed to create two large holes through the roof’s heavy ‘blue Bangor’ slates, 30 by 18 inches in size. At least four individuals, all wearing balaclavas, were involved.
While the premises actually had three different types of alarm systems installed, only one was activated. This occurred at 3am and gardaí arrived on site 3.30am. However, by this time, the gang had already made off. Unfortunately, the store’s nearest garda station had previously been 15 miles away in Ballina, yet this had since changed to Ballymote station – some 35 miles away – a fact which would have made it extremely difficult for gardaí to arrive on the scene any earlier.
Expanding foam trick
Another retailer hit in a similar manner, Shirley Corcoran from nearby Ballina in Co. Mayo, described how the gang used expanding foam to block any noise coming from her alarm system. With no alarms to disrupt their night’s work, the thieves appeared to be in no rush to leave, with enough time to drill through steel walls and enter the premises’ safe room, subsequently making off with the CCTV system, with the result that this could not be used as evidence.
However, as Feeney pointed out, even with access to CCTV footage, the criminals cannot be identified. It’s clear that they arrived well prepared with balaclavas, gloves, torches and belts containing all their necessary equipment. It also certainly appears that the gang had done their homework in advance with regards to scoping out the store and the broader general area. “They knew exactly where they were going,” Feeney said.
‘Fear factor is back’
This paints an alarming picture for rural Ireland. For the community at large in West Sligo, “the fear factor is back,” Feeney added. “People are afraid.” He urged anyone who might have any potential details that could help gardaí in their hunt for the notorious gang, to report what they saw. Even seemingly disparate information could, as Corcaran added, help them “piece the jigsaw together”.
Despite the destruction caused to scanning equipment, refrigeration, phone lines and wi-fi, the one silver lining that arose from the carnage was that their communities and staff “rallied” to support both retailers after the incidents and were heartily praised for their efforts.
‘Two-tier’ community policing
Concerns about policing in rural areas are unfortunately nothing new. Earlier this month, the Garda Inspectorate actually went on the record to criticise Ireland’s “two-tier” community policing system, which involves the vast majority of community gardaí being deployed to Dublin at the expense of rural communities.
The Irish Independent reports that chief inspectorate Robert Olson also revealed Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s constituency of Mayo and Kildare currently has no full-time community policing officers. In all, there are presently 540 gardaí assigned to community policing out of the total force, comprising of 12,866 guards. Out of those 540 gardaí, 328 work in one of the six Dublin divisions with 117 based in one Dublin division alone. This comparison is stark when examined next to rural areas, where 14 garda stations actually have 10 or fewer community police on duty. The verdict on the force’s technological resources was hardly any more reassuring, with its computer-aided dispatch technology damningly described as a “1980s vintage computer system”. The one positive of the Garda Inspectorate’s report was that it found Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan is working towards addressing these failings. One would certainly hope so!
Various commentators have not been slow to join the dots and connect fewer gardaí resources with higher incidences of rural crime. In a recent Wexford People report, Fianna Fáil general election candidate for Wexford, Councillor James Browne said a key factor in the county’s high burglary rate, was the fact that there are now 35 fewer gardaí in County Wexford than there were in 2010, down from 316 gardaí to 281.
In advance of the forthcoming general election, the government’s response to spiralling rural crime was to launch Operation Thor last month. A scheme which Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said would have a budget “in excess of €5 million”. However the scheme has not been without its opponents, of whom Councillor Browne is one. “The government launched Operation Thor to much fanfare last month with the aim of tackling the roaming gangs that are targeting our communities,” he said, describing the launch as “the first acknowledgment by Fine Gael and Labour that they have let crime spiral out of control in many parts of rural Ireland”. Leaving party politics aside, it’s not surprising that Browne is concerned, considering that recent official figures show Wexford has the highest per capita burglary rate in the country.
From a PR perspective, Operation Thor is certainly making all the right noises, with talk of “extra high-visibility patrols” in “burglary hot spots”, more “checkpoints to take the criminal gangs” on main roads, and “high-powered cars” at the guards’ disposal. However, writing in The Irish Times, Conor Lally made several pertinent points that decry these descriptions. With funding set to run for “about six months”, Lally breaks this down to show that divided between the 28 Garda divisions across the State, just under €27,800 will be available to each division each month under a budget of €5 million. “It doesn’t sound like much when you break it down, especially for such a major simultaneous ‘crackdown’ on both rural and organised crime,” he wrote. “When one considers spending on overtime in the Dublin area can reach €2 million per month, Operation Thor’s new contribution is put in perspective.”
Lost faith in judicial system
While the jury may therefore be out on the merits of Operation Thor, it appears many retailers also have doubts about the efficiency of our judicial system and the sentences handed down to the criminals who are actually caught. A study by the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association published this summer actually found businesses are increasingly not reporting crime because they have lost faith in the system. The research showed a fifth of small firms did not inform gardaí when they were targeted by criminals during the past 12 months and almost all – 98% – felt the law was ineffective. This is despite the fact that the number of companies which experienced more than one instance of crime jumped from 75% last year to 84% in 2015. Alarmingly, just 7% of owners and managers thought the perpetrators would actually be caught.
According to the study, direct costs for companies targeted by burglars and thieves amounted to €9,539 a year – an increase of 128% since 2007. When the €4,652 bill for preventative measures such as alarms and CCTV is heaped on top of this, the total cost of crime for each SME averaged at €14,191 – a whopping combined cost of €1.6 billion annually for the sector. ISME’s Mark Fielding called the results “a damning indictment of the judicial system” and said “business owners are fed up with the revolving door system”. He also called for greater community service solutions to tackle the problem.
Positive community responses
Sadly as many affected retailers have highlighted, the real tragedy of rural crime is that it can bring the fear factory back to communities. However some individuals are harnessing community power in a bid to help find a solution to the problem. Wexford People reports that local woman Tricia Lacey, from Murrintown, was amazed by the response she garnered after deciding to set up a ‘Wexford Neighbourhood Crime Watch’ page on Facebook – attracting 900 members in just two days. Another local man, David Bolger, whose business Bolgers of Broadway, was burgled four times in as many weeks, decided to host a ‘security day’ for locals to attend, arranging for gardaí, a security and monitoring company and a company that supplies cameras, recorders and solar systems to visit his store and give security advice.
As ShelfLife publisher John McDonald points out: “The two key items being targeted by raiders are cash and cigarettes. Ireland has the highest tobacco prices in the eurozone, with 80% of the cost of every packet of cigarettes sold going to the exchequer,” he adds. “This revenue windfall is part of the problem as the high value of cigarettes is perceived as ‘easy pickings’ among the criminal fraternity. It’s time that the state provided more security for our retailers, and I would urge you all to raise this issue with your candidates as they try to canvas your votes in the coming months.”
Naturally, an obvious concern for many retailers as the new year looms large, is the difficulty and cost involved in insuring their properties. Spin by the Department of Justice will simply not suffice; rural communities deserve proper protection, involving a well-thought out timeline and plan. The brutal truth is that more sophisticated attacks by criminals demand a vastly superior, more sophisticated response.