It was only a few short weeks ago that the Government announced a new national plan for Ireland. Like most of such plans it has a catchy name – ‘Project Ireland 2040’ – and offers a whole spectrum of aspirations that will make Ireland a better place for all of us. The last two strategic outcomes in the plan, regional accessibility and strengthening of rural communities, when taken together with other initiatives such as the pilot programme of reopening Garda stations (closed during the period of 2012-2013), might be taken as an indicator that the Government has rural development on its mind and wants to tackle rural crime. All such forward-thinking is admirable and necessary, but a fundamental question that remains unanswered is, what is the re-opening of Garda stations addressing exactly?
Firstly, we should discuss the nature of rural crime. A quick glimpse by any layperson at the official Garda crime statistics, despite their limitations, will show the simple fact that crime in rural areas is lower compared with the urban. In fact the further you get from Dublin, the lower the level of recorded crime. Looking also at crime victim studies carried out periodically as part of the Quarterly National Household Budget Survey, also verifies this fact: you are more likely to be a victim of crime in urban areas compared with rural and areas with less dense concentrations of population. This goes against the common perception that rural areas are rife with violent crime. But it doesn’t stop there: older people are less likely to be victims of crime compared with younger citizens, men more likely than women and so on. But again, taking feelings of safety into account, those more likely to be victims feel safer; those less likely to be victims feel more insecure. The issue may not have anything to do with whether there is actual crime close to you, but a sense that you are unsafe or that you feel fear. This would seem to suggest that fear of crime is more relevant here than actual crimes.
But we should not underestimate how fear generates a sense of insecurity. And it is not just closing Garda stations that makes rural areas fearful: the same effect can be said to result from closures of essential services such as post offices, banks and hospitals. Rural dwellers have borne the brunt of having these solid institutions taken from under them. Hopefully the Government’s plans for rural areas will ensure that there is greater integration of the country as a whole in creating inclusivity, connectivity and solidarity. Indeed the sense of fear and isolation is not helped by media constructions of crime as a threat emanating from urban dwellers.
Rural crime is very complex. Current media coverage is often very one-sided: it casts the rural as a victim of encroaching, highly mobile urban criminals. It is internationally well-documented by rural criminologists that rural dwellers can be both victims and perpetrators of crime in the same way as urban dwellers. Farmers, for example, are primarily a compliant social group, but there are always some who will evade the rules. Guns are more readily available in rural areas globally and are often used as weapons in violent crime, and domestic violence is usually an unspoken dimension in the background in rural communities. While we have little in-depth analysis of rural crime in Ireland, smuggling, tax evasion, pollution, illegal dumping, laundering diesel, heritage crimes and so on are all crimes that are prominent in rural areas in Australia and the United States to mention just two countries. If property crimes, burglaries and some high-profile assault cases are not the only crime problem, it follows that the re-opening Garda stations alone is not likely to deal with this broader base of rural crime.
Yet, given the simple binary nature of media coverage of rural crime, it is unsurprising that when listening to the narrative on crime in rural areas or to crime talk, the problem is presented typically in this one-dimensional way. Crime is always exported from the big cities and is invading the countryside in white vans benefiting from the improved road network. In that view, crime is something that happens in the countryside but it originates from the city, and city criminals are the people benefiting from the misery of rural dwellers. It has to be accepted that while this is a real issue, it is a rather simplified version of rural crime.
But then again, is rural crime the issue? One of the factors presented as a rationale for closing stations was the low level of reported crimes: in some cases only two or three cases per year. This low level of crime does not justify high levels of public expenditure on buildings and pay. However, as we have pointed out earlier, the issue is less about actual crimes and more about the fear of crime. We argue that there is a need for a paradigm shift: a fresh way of thinking would involve moving from rural crime to rural safety and security. This involves local Gardaí working with other agencies and communities to analyse and practically address local problems with all crimes and with the fear of crime. If the new roads could be considered as a factor increasing the exposure of rural residents to crime, reopening the rural Garda stations can be seen as merely a symbolic gesture towards improving safety. But rural safety is produced somewhere else other than in buildings with Gardai in them: it is found in the daily efforts of rural dwellers and engaged police officers who organise themselves on this issue and in the national organisations that support and underpin this work. Hence rural community development, and more particularly, rural community safety should be as important an investment as buildings, vehicles and uniformed officers.
The proposed programme of investment by ‘Project Ireland 2040’, especially the strategic outcome aimed at improving the accessibility to the Irish countryside, is a further step to make Ireland globally competitive and hyper-modern. With such ‘improvements’ there are also risks: extending the road network under previous national development plans has arguably led to greater exposure of the countryside. Making the rural accessible while desirable for the benefits it brings also exposes it to flows of criminal opportunity not previously seen.
In conclusion, rural safety is a complicated process. Simply opening more Garda stations, although addressing popular demand, is only part in a wider set of mechanisms aimed at the reduction of insecurity and vulnerability. As researchers on rural crime and security, we like to argue that rural in/security should be seen as the result of the interplay between four main forces: state interventions; media coverage; the fear of crime; and active civil society. In this system rural in/security is a shaped as the effect of this interplay or negotiations between those four, sometimes cooperating sometimes competing forces. Therefore, the final product – rural security – is subject to constant change, modification, improvement and negotiation. We could have all the Garda stations we’d like, but if the simplistic binary media-driven narratives undermine the efforts of both State and civil society, people will still feel exposed.
Rural areas are losing their past solidity: a reflection perhaps of the fast and liquid times we are living in. Re-opening police stations, improving the roads network, faster broadband or expanding budgets for rural infrastructural development are important, desired and demanded in rural areas. But without consideration to the exposing effects of such connectivity they may make matters worse by stimulating insecurity and undermining social solidarity.