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The fear factor

A man's face close up in front of grafitti

Tackling our social problems

Heart of the matter
Anton McNulty

Last week in Court, two mothers told of how they and their families were terrorised by another family for the last five years in a housing estate. They both described how they were verbally abused and harassed and they had no choice but to keep their children indoors as the other family terrorised the estate.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this type of behaviour would have been written about and taken place in estates in Limerick or Dublin but it occurred in an estate in Castlebar.
The scourge that is anti-social behaviour which was seen by many as a predicament confined to large urban areas has now sadly become a problem for many towns in Mayo. Stories of families living in fear of their neighbours have, unfortunately, become all to common. Another incident emerged at Ballina District Court where a man reported that his neighbours have continually played loud music since he moved there in 2003.
Many families who have suffered like this feel they have nowhere to turn to for help. They are afraid that they may suffer further intimidation if they complain. One person who was harassed and applied to the Council to be rehoused was told by a council official that it would be impossible to get another family to move into their house beside the troublesome neighbours.
According to one Castlebar Councillor it is the minority who are causing trouble but that minority is growing without it being dealt with. Cllr Michael Kilcoyne feels that some councillors have their heads buried in the sand over the situation and stiffer sentences have to be imposed on people convicted of anti-social behaviour.
“We need additional police resources but I think the Council have responsibilities to put in place anti-social behaviour policies and I think they have failed to do that. Some councillors are burying their heads in the sand and not accepting what’s happening. It is getting worse because nothing is being done about it and the whole policy towards criminality and anti-social behaviour has to be reviewed,” he says.
Cllr Kilcoyne believes several other measures need to be taken. He says the right to silence and free legal aid also needs to be reviewed.
“Why should the State have to pay for defendants who are causing crime? The least that should happen is if they are convicted they should have to pay back the costs involved.  We also have to examine the issue of parents being made responsible for their children. There has to be a get tough policy because there are a number of elderly people living in estates and they have to be looked after,” he said.
He says young people drinking is a major concern and contributes to anti-social behaviour. He feels the fact that two Gardaí had to call for back-up after being surrounded by up to 30 young people when trying to arrest two young people for under-age drinking illustrates how the problem has worsened.
Mayo County Council and the three Town Councils of Castlebar, Ballina and Westport have been accused of not doing enough to help people in local authority estates who are victims of anti-social behaviour.
In an attempt to counteract and deal with the situation the Council are working on outlining a set procedure and policy for the local authorities to deal with reports of anti-social behaviour.
Among the objectives of the policy is to clearly outline the causes of anti-social behaviour and work on prevention, early detection and management. To do this they look to work in partnership with outside agencies such as the HSE, the Gardaí, Department of Social Welfare and the Probation and Welfare Service.
Mr Peter Hynes, Director of Services with Mayo County Council, admitted the Council had difficulties dealing with people involved in anti-social behaviour but hoped the new anti-social behaviour policies will help them improve the situation.
“We are trying to set in place a standard procedure for dealing with complaints and have procedures  everyone knows we will follow. We will try and deal with problem cases because anti-social behaviour is sometimes a symptom of other problems and we will deal with that as well. It is not just about going to court and being in a position to look for the ultimate sanction.
“There are some difficulties when you find that there are persistent offenders and they are a small minority. It is quite difficult because at the end of the day you are talking about very far reaching sanctions and they are not something that you would do lightly. You are looking for a barring order or an eviction order but we hope to have a process in place where you can deal with the vast majority of cases before you go to court,” he said.
In the UK, the Government have introduced Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOS) since 1999 in an effort to deal with the problem. The introduction of ASBOS in Ireland has been suggested at Cabinet level but they have been criticised by groups such as the Children’s Ombudsman as a way of ‘bringing children who are not criminals closer to the criminal justice system’.
Whether or not such laws like ASBOS are the answer to the problems or for greater needs for social education, for the sake of families living in troublesome estates it has to be dealt with quickly.