Political cowardice bars sane response to criminality

Ten years ago, in the aftermath of the emotional trauma that erupted on the murder of Veronica Guerin, the Oireachtas passed a raft of legislation to combat what was seen as the menace of organised crime. It was asserted hysterically that the crime bosses threatened our democratic institutions, that her murder represented an assault on freedom of the press, that crime was out of control. Promises were made to "hunt down" her killers, a new innovation was introduced into our criminal justice system – without any legislative backing – the use of "supergrasses", a practice that when introduced in Northern Ireland was widely criticised down here.

Among the measures rushed through at the time was a change to the Constitution permitting the imprisonment of people who had committed no crime on the grounds they might commit crime if they remained free. No serious analysis of the crime phenomenon was undertaken then or since and, consequently, nothing credible has been done about crime, as evidence by the spate of murders that have occurred recently, the proliferation of criminal gangs and the ubiquity of illicit drugs.

The "crime bosses" did not threaten our democratic institutions and do not threaten our democratic institutions. Veronica Guerin's murder was not an attack on freedom of the press as the Special Criminal Court has found in a case arising from the murder. Crime was not and is not out of control, or at least what we think of as crime is not out of control.

We learnt nothing from the panic of 1996 and, because of that, we have repeated the panic recently, this time over the release of a single sex offender following the decision of the Supreme Court to find a section of a 1935 law unconstitutional. We have not learnt that rushed law is bad law and that anyway more law achieves very little, if anything, in the prevention of crime.

What is known as the organised criminal gangs and their criminality including murder, all arises from the criminilisation of what are known as recreational drugs. Were the importation, sale and possession of cocaine, heroin, cannabis and the rest, as legal as the importation, sale and possession of alcohol (which incidentally does far more individual and societal harm) there would be very few crime gangs, very much less criminality generally and fewer murders. Our police force would be free to deal with far more serious criminality: that of the rampant child sex abuse and violence and adult sex abuse and violence. But this doesn't happen and won't happen in large part because of political cowardice. No politician wants to be branded with the charge of succoring drug dealers and the agents of death.

It is precisely the same cowardice that caused the recent crisis on sex offenders. For years there was reason to suspect Section 1 (1) of the 1935 Act was unconstitutional because it did not provide for the defence to a charge of underage sex of an honest mistake. As Mary Harney said during that crisis, had anybody proposed to amend the 1935 Act to provide for the defence of honest mistake about the age of the girl they would have been branded as introducing a paedophiles charter. Even though they would have been protecting the 1935 Act from constitutional challenge.

Similar political cowardice is stopping us now dealing with gang killings and organised crime.

Vincent Browne