Adjournment Debate. - Incidents in Athlone (Westmeath) Estate.

I thank the Chair for allowing me raise this important matter. It gives me no joy as a public representative for County Westmeath to relate to the House a series of vicious attacks which occurred in College Park, Athlone, over the past 15 months and the resulting terror and fear that has gripped the residents of this estate. Some of these attacks would be more appropriate to a gangster film than a residential estate. They tarnised the image of Athlone and terrorised its people.

In a series of incidents in May 1993 weapons such as pickaxe handles, slash hooks and iron bars were used. People were severely cut and injured and many vehicles were badly damaged. Some time later a convoy of 30 vans converged on College Park, sealed it off and the passengers sought a man who lived in the estate. On failing to find him they proceeded to wreck his house.

Speculation about a further attack on this man in September last brought a convoy of his friends to the area and they proceeded to occupy the estate for a considerable time, leaving the terrified householders hiding indoors. On Thursday last week guns were brandished by masked gunmen who kicked in the front door of 23 College Park, Athlone. Luckily this house was unoccupied at the time of the attack. The attackers, realising they were in the wrong house, beat a hasty retreat to the adjoining house which was their intended target.

TheWestmeath Independent outlined what happened next: “One shot was fired upstairs with the bullet ricocheting from the landing area into an upstairs bedroom before the gunmen fled.” Thankfully nobody was killed or injured in this attack. The residents of the area were terrified. They live in daily fear of similar attacks and fear for their safety and that of their children. No longer can children feel safe playing in their own garden. Their freedom and enjoyment must be curtailed.

In an interview with theWestmeath Independent the man at the centre of these attacks stated: “I hold nothing against this other family who hired someone to do this job. They are supposed to be terrified of me but why I do not know”. The reference to hired gunmen points to the involvement of subversives in this attack and it is speculated that they are members of the INLA who came from Dundalk. Will this man co-operate with the gardaí to bring the attackers to justice? If he knows those who initiated the attack why does he not sort out his difficulties with them in a civilised manner? Scenes such as these are intolerable.

The residents in College Park are entitled to live in peace without fear of being innocently caught up in dangerous situations like this. They deserve and must be afforded all the protection the State can give them. The Minister for Justice must intervene immediately and give the Garda the resources necessary to protect the innocent and, more important, bring the guilty to justice. I call on the Minister of State to act before further escalation of this violence has fatal consequences.

I would first like to deal with the potentially more serious aspect of this Adjournment debate which relates to the discharge of firearms at College Park, Athlone last Thursday. The Minister for Justice has been informed by the Garda Authorities that shots were discharged and that the matter is now the subject of a Garda investigation. The Deputy will appreciate that because of the ongoing Garda investigation, I am constrained in what I can say, because it could affect not only the Garda inquiries but also prejudice the outcome of any future court proceedings. I will, therefore, confine my comments to the other aspect of this debate which relates generally to violent incidents in College Park, Athlone.

We are all aware that crime is, unfortunately, an unpleasant reality of modern life throughout most countries in the world. It is a complex issue and the Government's response to the problem must be a considered and comprehensive one. It would be misleading to suggest that the solution to crime is simply a matter of pouring more and more resources into the law and order system. Extra resources on their own will not provide the answers. That said, the House will be aware of the law and order package which the Minister for Justice announced last December and which amounts to a major initiative by a Government against crime. I do not propose going into all the details of the package but one aspect in particular is worth reflecting on in the context of this debate. I refer to the operational strength of the Garda Síochána and the number of gardaí engaged in policing duties. The law and order package provides for the recruitment of an additional 407 Garda trainees during 1994 while further recruitment of over 1,000 gardaí during the period 1995-97 is also planned. In tandem with this recruitment drive will be the recruitment of 200 civilian staff for the Garda Síochána between 1994 and 1997 to undertake clerical and administrative work. This will release an equivalent number of gardaí from administrative duties to outdoor police duties, thus increasing the operational strength of the force by 200. These additional resources must be welcomed and emphasise in a practical way the commitment and urgency which the Government attaches to the crime problem.

I would now like to turn to the question of crime in Athlone. The Garda Authorities have informed the Minister that following an escalation in crime in the town during 1991-92 a series of new initiatives were put in place. These include the formation of a team of experienced gardaí to deal with the investigation of crime, while extra foot and mobile patrols were assigned to housing estates and business areas which had been badly hit. Members were also detailed to patrol the river front and thereby reduce the commission of crime against boat hirers.

There are 18 neighbourhood watch schemes operating in Athlone and two uniformed gardaí are employed full-time as community gardaí. Old people residing alone have been identified and are visited by the community gardaí who advise them on ways of improving their personal safety and the security of their homes.

Notwithstanding the seriousness of the shooting referred to by the Deputy which none of us underestimates, the Minister is satisfied that the gardaí are responding very effectively to crime in Athlone. The Minister is also confident that the recent downward trend in crime in the area, which has been brought about by a careful and strategic targetting by Garda resources, will continue.