Rural Crime: Irish Farmers Association

The purpose of this part of the meeting is to have an engagement with the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, on the issue of crime affecting rural communities and farmers. I warmly welcome its president, Mr. Eddie Downey, whom I will ask to introduce his colleagues. The format of the meeting is that I will invite him to make a brief opening statement lasting approximately five minutes, after which we will have a question and answer session with members. We find this to be a highly effective approach. I ask everyone present to switch off his or her mobile phone or set it to airplane mode or another in order that it will not interfere with the recording system.

By virtue of section 17(2)(I) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members should be aware that under the salient rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I ask Mr. Downey to introduce his colleagues and make his opening statement.

Mr. Eddie Downey

I thank the Chairman for giving me the opportunity to address the joint committee on the very serious issue of rural crime. I know that members are well aware of the real anxiety among the farming community and rural communities generally about crime in the countryside. The theft of valuables from rural homes and livestock and machinery from farms is a major concern. It must be recognised that many farmers and other rural dwellers are living in real fear of their personal safety and that of their families. That is why it is so important that the issue be addressed as a matter of urgency.

I am joined by Mr. Jer Bergin, national treasurer, who has responsibility within the organisation for dealing with the issue of rural crime and Mr. Colin Connolly who has recently taken up the newly created staff position of rural crime prevention executive.

According to CSO figures, more than 2,500 farm crimes were reported in the first six months of 2014. They include 1,720 instances of farm machinery being reported as stolen and 218 cases of vehicle theft. There is also a serious problem with the theft of livestock, with 48 cases reported, including instances of cattle rustling. There were 280 burglaries or break-ins to farm houses. We do not have separate figures for burglaries at the homes and businesses of other rural dwellers. I stress that these are reported figures. We believe there is considerable under-reporting of rural crime, in particular, the theft of machinery, fuels and other items from farmyards and lesser break-ins to family homes.

The theft of agricultural equipment and livestock can be financially devastating for farmers who, like all rural dwellers, are very vulnerable when it comes to criminality. This vulnerability is compounded by geographic and service isolation. It is the IFA's contention that rural dwellers and farmers are not guaranteed the same level of service and security provided in urban areas. Many areas have seen the effects of cutbacks and closures of local services, including post offices and other vital institutions, as well as Garda stations and the presence of Garda members.

In response to the concerns of its members, the IFA has taken a lead role in addressing these challenges and we are working with An Garda Síochána and other agencies to support rural crime prevention. The IFA has partnered An Garda Síochána in developing the TheftStop crime prevention initiative, a new, practical, simple and cost-effective theft prevention system now available nationwide. Following successful pilot schemes in counties Tipperary and Donegal last year, the initiative is being rolled out nationwide on a county by county basis. All rural dwellers are invited to join TheftStop by registering at TheftStop.ie. It has been designed to deter criminals and recover stolen items by ensuring machinery and other equipment are clearly marked with a unique ID, with the details registered on TheftStop's nationwide database. I thank An Garda Síochána for its co-operation in this initiative and, in particular, assistant commissioner Jack Nolan for his continued commitment. I encourage all country dwellers, farmers in particular, to become part of the initiative by registering today.

The IFA has welcomed publication of the Sentencing Council Bill 2015 by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. It must lead to longer jail terms for burglars, in particular, for repeat offenders who continue to target family homes and businesses. The issue of bail also deserves close examination. There is clearly a serious problem with the level of crime being committed by people released on bail. Law abiding citizens deserve to be better protected.

The IFA has been campaigning for increased policing hours and the presence of mobile units in rural areas by An Garda Síochána to reduce crime and, in general, provide for a safer, more secure rural environment. I welcome the addition of 200 new vehicles to the Garda fleet and the commitment to continued Garda recruitment. Last August the IFA launched a policy charter for rural Ireland to support the 440,000 families and businesses in the countryside. It proposed the following measures to address members’ concerns about rural security. The seniors alert scheme which provides financial support for the use of personal pendant alarms by elderly people should be extended to cover the installation of house alarms and there should be full enforcement by local authorities and An Garda Síochána of the legislation to curb metal theft. It was enacted in 2014 and requires all scrap metal dealers to keep proper records and seek proof of identity from those supplying such materials. A key element of Government support for rural areas is delivery on its commitment to provide a high-quality rural fibre broadband network across the country to support homes and businesses.

The IFA has taken a lead role in terms of action on rural crime and been proactive in identifying solutions to the problem. As a clear indication of its commitment we have appointed a rural crime prevention executive, Mr. Connolly, to assist the organisation in this task. We have established a reward fund of €10,000 with An Garda Síochána and Crimestoppers to combat livestock theft and developed a community-based text alert initiative in which IFA branch officers play a key role in crime prevention. Building on our community text service, we are exploring the development, with An Garda Síochána, of a full nationwide text alert service that would lead to safer and more secure rural communities. We are engaging with local communities on the issue of CCTV installation in local villages at locations where it would assist crime prevention and detection.

The IFA will continue to campaign for support from elected representatives and the Government to protect rural dwellers and businesses. Today I am looking for further engagement from the committee on the IFA's activities in rural crime prevention, together with its support for the IFA's initiatives in this regard. We look forward to a constructive discussion with it.

I thank Mr. Downey for his comprehensive opening statement. The committee is looking for submissions on electronic tagging and curfews. If anybody who is listening has comments to make on these issues, he or she is welcome to send them in. There are different views on how effective electronic tagging is and we would need to have a good look at it before rushing to implement it. There has been some pilot scheme work done on it.

We had representatives of Muintir na Tíre before us recently in what was a very interesting engagement. What engagement has the IFA had with that organisation? I would also like to find out about farmwatch, which is active in some parts of the United Kingdom and seems to be quite an interesting and effective approach.

The joint committee is involved in an ongoing dialogue on the issue of rural crime. A few years ago the IFA carried out a survey in which one in three respondents said he or she had been the victim of crime in some way. There was an issue with the recording of crime and a sense that some crimes were not taken seriously. Other surveys produced similar findings for rural areas, but the official crime statistics gave a very different picture. What is Mr. Downey's view?

Mr. Downey mentioned the under-reporting of crime.

Mr. Eddie Downey

It is a big issue for us. I have attended a number of meetings around the country at which crime officers from An Garda Síochána have spoken. One of them described a farm as a supermarket for thieves because the opportunities for thieves at a farm were endless. It is as if we invite thieves onto farms. We need to take action to prevent this from happening. It is very clear that some people think it is not necessary to report certain crimes and they do not see any value in reporting them. We have to get the need to report every crime into people's minds because, while a crime on one farm may seem trivial, in combination, they are all serious and reporting them might lead to the detection of a more serious crime later.

While a crime committed on my farm might seem trivial, the combination and culmination of various crimes might lead to the detection of more serious crimes further on. I think we need to get that into place. We cannot expect the system to deal with all of these issues. People dwelling in rural Ireland need to be part and parcel of the solution. The IFA believes it has a role in that.

Mr. Jer Bergin

Mr. Downey is right when he says that a great deal of low-level crime is not reported. I refer to diesel theft and that kind of thing. I will explain why reporting has to be part of the IFA's Theft Stop initiative, which is being rolled out by my colleague, Mr. Connolly. There are two issues at stake here. The first is crime prevention and the second is that the Garda is unable to return much of the stolen equipment it recovers to its rightful owners. There is a need for reporting through official Garda channels, to be followed by uploading, identification and all the rest of it. This should result in being able to trace owners and return equipment to farmers. However, this is not something that always happens at present. I think that is a key issue as well.

The impact of cross-Border crime on rural communities has been issue in my constituency of Donegal North-East, which is a Border constituency, from time to time. The IFA has taken up some very good initiatives in the county. I refer to the marking of farm machinery, etc. What level of co-operation exists between the IFA and the Ulster Farmers Union? Is a joint approach being taken? We have recently heard language suggesting that a joint task force of the PSNI and An Garda Síochána is tackling criminality in Border areas. The issues that need to be addressed include not only diesel laundering and cigarette smuggling but also cattle rustling and the theft of farm machinery. This type of crime is having an impact on the farming community. I want to get a sense of the level of all-Ireland co-operation to address crime.

Mr. Eddie Downey

My colleague, Mr. Connolly, might want to come in on this as well. We have a very good relationship with the Ulster Farmers Union. I recently spoke at a farm safety conference at which the union was represented. We are developing links with the union because there is commonality across the Border. When machinery is stolen from a farm, it is a unique thing. The number of customers for a piece of machinery might be quite limited. It is a question of finding out where these things are going, who is receiving them and who is moving them on from there. I think that is the key part of this. That is where the marking system that is part of the Theft Stop initiative comes in. A unique mark on each piece of equipment will make it more traceable. We are going to work with interested parties in the North. I have already had discussions with the president of the Ulster Farmers Union on the potential for the roll-out and use in the North of a similar system to our Theft Stop system. We are looking at how it could work on that basis.

Mr. Colin Connolly

The co-operation between the Garda and the PSNI is now obvious. Part of my function with the IFA is to liaise with the Garda in respect of these matters. Having worked in An Garda Síochána, I understand the way this needs to work. It says a lot that the Theft Stop initiative originated in County Donegal as a cross-Border initiative. At the moment, the Garda is fully engaged with this system and the PSNI is very aware of it. We can ensure the system works by transcending the Border, bringing it across and getting the North engaged in it.

My final question relates to joint policing committees. I want to get a sense of the role played by community alerts and text alerts. A delegation from Muintir na Tíre, which is a fantastic and important initiative in rural areas, attended a recent meeting of the joint committee. With regard to joint policing committees, I have concerns about the ability of community organisations and public representatives to engage with senior members of An Garda Síochána on the concerns that exist in a given county. When the Garda Síochána (Policing Authority and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2015 is passed, which should happen soon, the new policing authority will have an important role in policing the joint policing committees. I would like to get the thoughts of the witnesses on how we can improve those committees, particularly as they pertain to rural areas.

Mr. Eddie Downey

While the theft of machinery and various other items from farms is worrying, the particular danger associated with cattle rustling and cattle theft is that it has the potential to damage the system of full traceability on which we pride ourselves in this country. We have great confidence in this robust and good system, which is being well policed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Cattle rustling is creating a real worry for us, however. The co-operation that is being received North and South to try to stamp this out is an example of how various systems can work well together. I think we are making major progress in this whole area.

Mr. Jer Bergin

I think there is a strong role for the IFA in this area. We have almost 950 branches across the country. Like the GAA, we are in every parish in every county. Farmers have a unique role to play because they are present in rural areas at times of the day or night when other people are at work or college. Their local knowledge and skills of observation are used as part of the text alert system, for example. Reference has been made to Muintir na Tíre. We are working with the Garda as part of that to get it running better and to spread it out. We intend that all our branch members will be able to be part of community text alert systems, which are used by people to make reports to the Garda when they see something wrong. Such reports go to local gardaí and nobody else. Those gardaí assess the vehicle or whatever it is and make decisions on that basis. It is a case of using local knowledge to help gardaí to do their jobs. Our role does not involve replacing gardaí or the resources that need to come to the Garda to police rural Ireland.

I thank the witnesses for attending this meeting. Some of the issues I want to raise have already been discussed. A large theft of livestock in my constituency was devastating for the family involved. I would like to hear more from the witnesses about what we can do in that regard. What do they think Members of the Oireachtas should be doing to protect farmers from these crimes? I am interested in the Theft Stop initiative, which farmers often raise with me. I am aware that the IFA is encouraging the national roll-out of the initiative, which was rolled out on a pilot basis in counties Tipperary and Donegal. What was the uptake of the scheme in those counties? How much success did it achieve?

We will come back to the Deputy. She has asked questions about livestock. Deputy Mac Lochlainn raised that issue as well. Do the witnesses have any idea where the stolen livestock ends up? Someone must be buying it at the other end.

It must go somewhere.

Deputy McFadden also asked for an overview of the Theft Stop initiative.

Mr. Eddie Downey

Obviously, the theft of livestock is very worrying for us. We need to look at where these animals are going, how they are being processed, how they are being brought through the system and who is the ultimate customer for them. It is hugely worrying for us. We have put up €10,000 as a reward to try to find out exactly what is going on here. Major progress is being made in that regard. The Garda is closing in on this situation. We would like to allow it to do its job on that basis. I think that is what we should do. What was the other issue raised by the Deputy?

I asked about the Theft Stop initiative.

Mr. Eddie Downey

I will ask my colleague, Mr. Connolly, to respond to that question because he is rolling out the initiative.

Mr. Colin Connolly

Did the Deputy ask a general broad question about the Theft Stop initiative?

I asked about the national uptake of the Theft Stop initiative following its success and the results it achieved in counties Tipperary and Donegal.

Mr. Colin Connolly

A pool of 3,450 farmers was used in the trial, which was carried out in counties Donegal and Tipperary and was welcomed by those involved in it. No item that has been marked as part of the Theft Stop initiative has been stolen since the start of the initiative. We can stand 100% over that figure. I think it is a very good figure. It suggests the strength of the system. At the moment, we have a county-by-county roll-out plan. While Theft Stop is available nationwide and any member of the public can log on and use it, we have decided to launch it on a county-by-county basis through our IFA executive meetings. We carried out our first launch in County Laois the night before last. Although it is probably too early to quantify the figures for registration and sign-up, it is obvious from the expressions of interest and the national and local media coverage that Theft Stop will be put on a national footing. The cross-Border links with the PSNI will be invaluable as we try to close down the systems that are used to move machinery and cattle across the Border. The IFA is associated with tagging. Essentially, we are now tagging property with a serial number that makes it uniquely identifiable. When I was a member of the Garda Síochána, I encountered the problems that can arise with the repatriation of property. This is the first time this country will have a database of property that can be used in this way. This initiative is being initially rolled out to target the theft of farm machinery and other crimes that take place on farms but I do not see why it cannot go out into the wider community. The Garda deals on a daily basis with the theft of bicycles and other items that are not returned. A cost is associated with storing this property if it is not located.

Therefore I think it is definitely a system that can and will be expanded upon.

I welcome the roll-out in individual areas because it will heighten people's awareness of it. It is a good idea. Mr. Connolly spoke about the seniors alert scheme and the wish for support to extend it for installing alarms, but how will that work? In my constituency, my late father, Lord have mercy on him, used Helplink South which was an alarm he wore on his wrist. It was very effective for an elderly person. Is Mr. Connolly suggesting that, similar to that, we would put alarms in houses to counter burglary? How does he expect that would be rolled out?

Mr. Eddie Downey

There are many new systems for alarms and warning systems now. I saw one recently with a panic button that was completely tamper-proof. We need items like that which can give more security to people in the countryside. The personal pendant has worked very well and is an excellent system, but we need to extend it further to give more security to people.

Mr. Jer Bergin

We are looking at it in the context of the previous system where pendants were available and what other technologies are available now for vulnerable people identified by local communities and text alert groups. We are examining the issue of funding. I acknowledge that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has put seed funding of €50,000 into a text alert group and a community group in our area for cameras. Those initiatives help us to work with people who want to help themselves. That is where we are coming from.

I have one observation and a question. Deputy Mac Lochlainn mentioned the soon to be created independent police authority. As a large organisation, the IFA should seek membership of that authority. There is currently a call under the Public Appointments Service. It is open to individuals to seek inclusion in the authority's membership. I think the IFA would have a constructive and valuable role to play in this regard.

Will the IFA representatives quantify the scale of cattle rustling, including the headage stolen? Are the cattle brought to unlicensed, unregulated abattoirs or are they sold on? What is the dispersal method? I am trying to get a sense of the scale of the problem. We had some reports of it happening in my constituency in Limerick. Thankfully, however, the most recent report turned out to be a false alarm. It was reported in the newspaper that there was a large theft of cattle, but apparently they found their way home the following week.

Mr. Jer Bergin

We heard that.

The gate was left open and they wandered back. That was not reported in the press, by the way. I want to get a sense of it, including the insurance implications.

Mr. Eddie Downey

On the subject of cattle wandering home, there was an alert because a neighbour had lost the header of his combine and thought it was stolen, but it turned out that another neighbour had put it into a shed to keep it dry for him. There are good neighbours as well.

Forty-eight cases of cattle rustling were reported. In one case, 100 cattle were stolen in Westmeath. It is not that the numbers are huge but it is the potential damage this can do to the industry, including the traceability system. Livestock theft can wipe out individual farm incomes.

The other question was where these animals go. They do not all go to the one place, so there have to be multiple destinations. Some of them are finished cattle that can go to certain places, but others are not. We have to figure out where these are going and what criminals are involved. Some of those criminals must have knowledge of how to deal with animals because not just anybody can walk into a field, load them and move them on. There are groups of people involved in this and we need to break that down.

There was no insurance for cattle theft until 18 months or two years ago. FBD Insurance has stepped into that space now, so insurance is available for farmers. That is not the way we want to go, however. We want to get to the stage where cattle theft is not profitable.

Mr. Downey said there were 48 incidents of cattle theft. Staying with the insurance aspect, is the premium level prohibitive?

Mr. Eddie Downey

No, it is very reasonable. Like all insurance, it makes one feel better to have it. We obviously hope that we will never have to use it. We would like to get to the stage where we get to the bottom of this and cut it out.

Mr. Jer Bergin

We have spoken to the Ulster Farmers Union about cattle rustling because there is a commonality and a cross-Border element to it. The Garda Síochána and the PSNI are working together to try to track it down. In recent weeks, we have seen one conviction in that region of which I am aware. As I understand it, that was an ongoing investigation for a long time. As the IFA president said, it is a specialist job and needs targeting by both police forces. I think it can be rooted out.

On "Prime Time" I saw a piece about an unlicensed abattoir. Does Mr. Downey know if there is much of that going on? Is he aware of the level or scale of that?

Mr. Eddie Downey

An unlicensed abattoir would have to be on a very small scale because all the animals in this country are tagged and there is a robust traceability system. At least one such case has been found due to the activities of the Garda and the PSNI following up on thefts. It is positive that we found those but we need to root it out completely at this stage. Let us not rush in with one piece of evidence. Let us wait until we have the full picture and then stamp it out completely.

As regards rustling, obviously the cattle are not remaining in this jurisdiction. They are going to other jurisdictions, which is a problem. Does the same problem apply to stolen farm equipment being moved to another jurisdiction in the main or off the island altogether? I am glad to hear such equipment is being tagged with serial numbers.

Mr. Colin Connolly

It is twofold. Cattle and machinery are moving across the Border. Unfortunately, however, there is also a market within the country for it. Members tell me at meetings that if one attends markets at the weekend, one can see in the early hours of the morning that various things, including tools, are available for purchase. Part of the solution to that is engaging with people, including through the development of a text alert service. The Garda Síochána has a confidential phone number for information, but a forum where people can communicate their knowledge is also useful. One must have an in-depth knowledge to be able to carry out cattle rustling and achieve one's aim. A communications facility, perhaps through the IFA, to the Garda or Crimestoppers and back into the PSNI would be helpful. We need to encourage people to communicate in that way with us.

It is a very interesting engagement. The initiatives certainly seem to be working. I am particularly struck by the fact that not one of the tagged cattle has gone missing. As regards international best practice, has the IFA looked at other jurisdictions and, if so, are there similar problems there? I imagine there are, so how have they dealt with them? Is there anything we could all learn from what is happening internationally?

Mr. Jer Bergin

We are in the process of looking at best practice in every jurisdiction.

There are a number of examples in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, but there is no perfect solution. One of the things we are doing, and which Mr. Connolly will do in his role, is assessing various vehicle-tracking technologies and different types of equipment, seeing what works and what does not. We are not salespeople for security system companies. Our responsibility is to our members and to rural communities and putting together policies and packages that will work for them. The advantage we have over everywhere else is our broad membership base. We have 90,000 members and 950 branches, which gives us a reach. Ireland is a small country and if we can use that bit of knowledge, we will do so, through text alerts, reporting to the Garda, uploading information and documenting it, so that gardaí can access it. We will also work to change policy in terms of encouraging the Legislature to put resources into the Garda. Some of the recent initiatives are very good in terms of extra resources but we also need, for example, to target the markets that were referred to with a van - there has been some targeting by gardaí early in the morning - and we need to close off the market at the other end as well.

When Mr. Downey and his colleagues attended the Seanad Public Consultation Committee on farm safety we saw evidence from a GAA club in west Cork, which successfully campaigned, held open days, information sessions and so on, regarding farm safety. Is there any role for collaborating with the GAA, which could assist the IFA in intelligence-building?

Who wants to take that?

Mr. Eddie Downey

There are two issues. In his new role, Mr. Connolly is going to go across the country, talking to farmers and county executives to get information as to how we can best be defensive in managing ourselves and what measures we can take to make our farms and equipment safer and more secure. We see working with other groups as key to this process. We work with Muintir na Tíre and with different groups along the way. We see the GAA as a major organisation in rural Ireland. This area of security has to be addressed from that point of view. As I said already, and maybe I did not get that across the way I wanted to, we do not see this totally as the Garda's problem. The Garda is part of the solution, as are we, the people who live in the communities, and we have to work together to make best use of the resources, be it the farmers themselves, who are, as Mr. Bergin said, our eyes and ears on the countryside, the GAA, or whoever is out there, all those organisations. We have to work together and become more security-conscious in what we do.

In Mr. Downey's view, is the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine doing enough to assist in terms of dealing with this, which is a developing area of crime?

Mr. Eddie Downey

Is that question about livestock theft?

Mr. Eddie Downey

There has been huge co-operation between the Department and an Garda Síochána in this area and they take this as a very serious issue.

I call Senator Zappone.

Sorry, Mr. Connolly wanted to come in on that as well.

Mr. Colin Connolly

On the mention of organisations like the GAA, coming from a non-farming background and coming from an Garda Síochána into the IFA, part of my function is clearly to develop any implementation outside the farming community, things like Theft Stop and text alerts. We want to be all-inclusive because the only way to solve this problem is to bring the wider community into it. That needs to be stressed.

I call Senator Zappone.

I have an observation and a question. I really like and affirm the holistic approach the IFA is presenting to us in terms of the issue of rural crime, identifying some of the legislative concerns, the issue of broadband, the ways in which various kinds of partnership are being formed, CCTV installation and so on. It is great to hear that kind of leadership. So much of it is about prevention. Could the witnesses tell us specifically a little more about the rural crime prevention executive, and more generally is it getting enough Government support for that prevention approach? We have spoken a little about the resource issue. Is it about more resources? Surely it is also about new ways of working with the resources the organisation has. Is it about a bit of both?

Mr. Eddie Downey

From my point of view, it is about using the resources we have better. Obviously we also have to identify what is working out there and, as Mr. Bergin said, what is working in other jurisdictions and what we can bring back here. If we find something that works really well, we can see if we can get funding for that. The evidence about CCTV footage is anecdotal. The new road structure in this country is wonderful. I came through the port tunnel this morning and I got here before everybody else, which makes a change. However, that is also facilitating the reverse of that: criminals moving out into the countryside. They are using those arteries to get into these areas. If we had proper CCTV coverage on those roads, we might be able to identify more of these criminals and where they are working. It is a mix of small things that will give solutions. We have to build intelligence within the Garda to help us resolve that. Co-operation with the Garda is essential at all times and the co-operation we have had so far has been excellent.

Mr. Jer Bergin

On Senator Zappone's point regarding the holistic approach, the unique thing about our Theft Stop initiative is the full partnership with the Garda Síochána. We have worked through this for two years and came up with a list of recommendations, including a rural crime prevention officer. It is not about doing something outside the existing structures, it is about trying to add to the existing structures. That is the unique element of it and that could be rolled out in other areas of industry and so on.

I thank Mr. Bergin. I do not have any further questions, but I think Mr. Connolly wants to respond.

Mr. Colin Connolly

Just to echo the sentiments of Mr. Bergin and Mr. Downey, to describe our approach as "holistic" sums it up. In anything we do, or anything I am involved in developing, I will always look at the cost element of it. Security should not necessarily come with a cost to a rural dweller, because if we put a cost on it with high-tech security implementation systems, it keeps people outside of it, whereas initiatives like Theft Stop or text alerts are relatively inexpensive to implement. We are not asking the Government to invest millions in the Garda Síochána; we are asking it to invest time and effort and to put gardaí back in rural communities. If we are putting them back into the area, we are investing in our communities, which is ultimately going to invest in the overall system. It is a simple basic structure and it is a holistic approach.

I have a few questions about Theft Stop. Is that similar to Farm Watch in the UK, where people sign up, a little like community alert? Mr. Connolly said that nothing that was tagged was stolen, which implies there is a way the thieves know those things are tagged so they will not steal them. Am I right or can the witnesses explain further?

Mr. Colin Connolly

It is similar in its nature. Theft Stop, and Farm Watch in the UK, display an obvious sign, similar to the text alert signs we have across the country, with which people will be familiar. With Theft Stop, we have a farm gate sign, which is clearly displayed on a person's property to show they are part of the system. Then there are serial numbers. One will begin to see obvious serial numbers on trailers and people will start to know what they are very soon.

Excellent. Has the IFA looked at forensic marking? A liquid can be used for this, which I think is used in the UK as well.

Mr. Colin Connolly

I have looked at one or two companies. There is a company in the UK called SmartWater, which operates quite an effective system, whereby it is a unique number. However, it does come with a cost element to it and there is an end case element. Ultimately, if something needs to be prosecuted in court, I would always be keeping an eye on the end product. If we do catch somebody with something, we need to be able to prosecute them. The system we have in Ireland is quite robust in that regard in its make-up.

The witnesses have emphasised the importance of reporting every theft or attempted theft. That message came from Muintir na Tíre as well, because we have heard people saying from time to time that there in no point in reporting these incidents. The IFA's message is obviously, in contrast to that, to report everything, no matter how minor, to gardaí so they can build up a picture. Mr. Downey mentioned in his opening statement that people were living in real fear for their personal safety, and we have seen reports of people going to bed with shotguns and firearms. We know farmers use firearms for other reasons as well on farms. Could he comment on the fear of crime? Muintir na Tíre told us the fear of crime can be more devastating than the crime itself.

Mr. Eddie Downey

When there is a break-in in an area, the issue is the effect on the rest of the community in the area.

While the break-in is devastating for the people involved, the ripple effect on the rest of the community is the real problem. What we are seeing in rural areas is the impact of an almost siege mentality. When an alarm is installed, one will put it on when one is going out or at night, such that one feels one is locked in. This is creating a fear factor. Electric gates and CCTV cameras are being installed all over the place. What we want to try to do is to bridge it to some extent by working in conjunction with other organisations to have community involvement to release some of the fear. It is not just older people, everybody is experiencing genuine fear. There is nothing as devastating as walking into one's house and seeing it ransacked.

Mr. Jer Bergin

From a social perspective, the solution to the problem is not the provision of security, with everybody locking himself or herself behind a door, removing the sense of community and neighbourliness whereby people look in on their neighbours. It is a combination of things that will give people a sense of security and a sense that they do not have to live as if they are under siege. Legislators must be seen to deal with the legal issues and take repeat offenders out of the system. The simple community systems we are trying to initiate are the way forward. We should avoid turning Ireland into a prison camp.

As Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn said, we hope the Garda Síochána (Policing Authority and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2015 will be in place shortly, followed by the burglary and bail laws which, with co-operation, we hope to have completed by Christmas.

Will Mr. Downey comment on the use of firearms, as this issue has been mentioned on a few occasions? The committee did some work on the issue earlier this year.

Mr. Eddie Downey

The idea that people use firearms because they are living in fear is extremely worrying, but if we do not address these issues, we will see a situation we do not want to see developing where things will go in the wrong direction. That is the reason we are trying to get into this space as quickly as we can. We have not come before the committee because of a reaction to recent media reports; we have been working on this issue for a long time and will continue to work on it as we normally do. We would be very worried if people were to take the wrong action at particular times. What is really frustrating for us is that repeat offenders out on bail are committing crimes. When they are convicted, they receive the same treatment on their 100th crime as on their first. That is where the problem lies. There has to be a ratcheting up in order that repeat offenders are dealt with more severely. Everybody on the ground and the Garda have to make that call.

The Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Bill 2015 and the Bail Bill 2015 will address some of those issues.

Mr. Eddie Downey

That will be a help. We need to see that happening.

I think I can speak for all of my colleagues when I thank the members of the IFA for their work and constructive approach and the professional way they go about dealing with issues related to agriculture and the wider farming community. We wish them well and they should feel free to contact the committee if they want to make us aware of issues or make suggestions on how we can support what they are doing. We have been considering the issue of electronic tagging and should they wish to comment on it, they might let us know.

Sitting suspended at 10.24 a.m. and resumed at 10.26 a.m.