Sunday, December 17, 2006

Late on Wednesday, a man was shot dead in the centre of Dublin. His real name was Gerard Byrne: his criminal moniker was Batt. Like the “Marlo” part of Martin “Marlo” Hyland (another underworld boss gunned down this week), the Batt bit told us all we needed to know.

The fact he was the fourth victim of gangland crime in a week, and the 23rd this year, turned a media and political storm into a hurricane.

We got the predictable reactions — it was a crisis; gangland crime was spiralling out of control; people were living in fear; Dublin (like Limerick) was a city under siege.

The opposition called for more resources for gardaí, for harsher sentencing and pilloried Michael McDowell for not getting to grips with the crisis.

McDowell took a swipe at judges for ignoring the people’s wishes for tougher bail and sentencing regimes. A Government backbencher, Senator Cyprian Brady called for the army to be called in. Soon a politician will demand a return of capital punishment, or martial law, or both.

And then later on Thursday, the news came through Mayo farmer Pádraig Nally was acquitted of the manslaughter of John “Frog” Ward.

Anyone who followed this case felt sympathy for Nally. He genuinely feared he was under threat. But it was also clear his fear was obsessive and paranoiac. He admitted spending hours on guard in his shed, his shotgun at the ready.

By Nally’s own account, he shot Ward as he came out the back door after having broken in. When Ward attacked him (an act of self-defence from a badly wounded man), Nally beat him 20 times with a plank. He referred to it as like trying to beat a badger. Anyone who has read Patrick Boyle’s short story about a hunt for a badger, “Meles Vulgares”, will know its resistance to the fiercest blows.

Nally then went to his shed and reloaded the shotgun. Ward at this stage was making a pathetic effort to flee. Nally followed him, shot him in the back as he tried to escape down the road. He then dumped the body over a wall into a field. The salient point was this: The fatal shot was fired while Ward was clearly in retreat. No matter how much sympathy you feel for Nally, that was wrong by any measure. Any measure, that is, except for the one used by leading politicians — and obviously the jury who returned this disturbing judgment.

Even before the trial commenced, the debate had been twisted and perverted. It was no longer about a man being killed. No, it was about the right of property owners to defend their own homes. This was incendiary stuff. Enda Kenny and Jim O’Keeffe backed a Fine Gael bill to afford more protection to homeowners. McDowell introduced his own, using PD Senator Tom Morrissey as a proxy.

And along the way there was some outrageous slurs on Travellers as if their main occupation was marauding the countryside looking for easy prey. Fine Gael MEP Jim Higgins got into the act on Questions & Answers. The media jumped onto the bandwagon. Ward wasn’t a model citizen. Yet in death, Frog was lumped in with Marlo and Batt as another dead criminal, who got what he deserved.

To me, the contrast in reaction to the Nally verdict and this week’s homicides were hypocritical to the core. I’m not trying to play down the horror of the so-called gangland slayings. They were abominable.

But do appalling incidents like this really tell us that we live in a society where violence is endemic? They don’t. The crisis is manufactured. What seems to interest nobody is salient reality. Crime rates in Ireland are low by international standards. Ireland is a safe country compared to most other EU States. Scotland has over three times our homicide rate, at over five per 100,000 population.

But then, you’re not going to get too far making that argument. Stoking up fear is the most powerful political instrument. The Government used it expertly when in opposition. Now it’s reaping its own whirlwind. You will never win a political argument saying crime is at expected levels or that a wasp has delivered its dying sting.

We have bought into a consensus for a generation now that we are in the midst of a continual crisis of violence and crime. Yet, somehow outrage evaporates completely when it comes to empathising with John Ward. For the likes of him, we have a new sui generis classification: the non-criminal homicide.

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