As it is revealed that Armagh and Tyrone were the two worst-hit areas by rural criminals last year, the chairman of Stormont’s Agriculture Committee has told Armagh I greater policing is needed to dent the confidence of the gangs at work.
Newry and Armagh Assemblyman William Irwin says only more visible policing will help to deter those who have been preying on local communities.
Justice Minister David Ford has revealed that, as far as livestock thefts are concerned, the “sad reality” is that “we will see that the two counties out of 32 on the island that had the worst statistics last year were Armagh and Tyrone”.
Speaking to Armagh I, Newry and Armagh DUP Assemblyman William Irwin, recently elected chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said: “Rural crime and, in particular, the theft of agricultural equipment and livestock, continues to cause concerns out in the rural and farming community.
“I met with police in recent days to discuss this very issue and I am concerned that the Chief Constable has raised the possibility of a cut to front line services and the impact that could have on the service delivered out in the ground.
“I put it to the police locally that such cuts could not, and must not, have an impact on how visible the police are in our district, and I made the case that more resources were required to enable a more visible deterrent for criminals.”
Mr Irwin said, as it stands currently, farmers cannot lock down an entire farm and they cannot stand guard over their livestock 24/7.
He added: “The criminals seem to act with a large degree of confidence of evading capture, which with every successful crime spree, breeds confidence amongst criminal elements, leading to more regular incidents of theft.
“This sense of confidence needs severely dented and that will only happen when there is a much greater police presence in our rural areas over a greater range of times, both during the day and especially night time.
“Public assistance in providing information to police has been crucial in a number of incidents which have led to arrests, and the public certainly have a very important role to play in alerting the PSNI to any suspicious activity.”
It was a view also held by local Sinn Fein Assemblyman Cathal Boylan, who said it was imperative that the PSNI deploy more resources if it is to reverse the increase in crimes against farming and rural crime.
The Newry & Armagh MLA told Armagh I: “A recent report from the NFU highlighted that there has been a 15% increase in crime against farmers.
“This vindicated the position Sinn Féin took in demanding a separate PSNI unit to deal with this type of crime.
“Over the past year we have seen the planned stealing of livestock and heavy plant equipment on the rise, as well as opportune criminals targeting sheds and farmyards.”
The information on Armagh and Tyrone emerging as the rural crime all-island hot-spots last year cam to light on the floor of the Assembly after Justice Minister David Ford was questioned by Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Bronwyn McGahan.
The Sinn Fein representative, from Dungannon, said the information provided by Minister Ford did not come as any surprise.
She says she has argued that the PSNI unit for dealing with crime of an agricultural nature was not being properly funded and was not sufficient to deal with the levels of crime which are being experienced locally.
In addition to calling for more money to help deal with the situation, Ms McGahan also said it was important for a cross-border strategy to be drawn up.
She had quizzed the Minister specifically in relation to the South Tyrone area and was given the following official response:
“The PSNI rural crime unit is a central resource for identifying trends and patterns of rural crime. The information is used by police commanders to enhance the effectiveness of their operational tactics, in preventing and detecting rural and agricultural crime.
“The unit is supported by a data analyst who is part-funded by my Department.
“At a regional level, the work of the unit resulted in an initiative whereby over £3 million worth of agricultural equipment has now been fitted with security devices.
“At a strategic level, the work of the unit is supported by the rural crime partnership. The partnership, led by my Department, comprises representatives of the PSNI, NFU Mutual and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
“The partnership recently met a range of stakeholders, including the Ulster Farmers’ Union and the National Sheep Association, to seek their views on livestock theft. Discussions are ongoing to develop actions to help address that issue.
“The unit’s impact is reinforced at a local level by interventions delivered by PCSPs (Police Community Safety Partnerships) in conjunction with the PSNI.”
The Minister had also added: “I am always surprised when any MLA highlights their constituency as being a hot-spot for crime, but it is the sad reality that if we look at livestock thefts, we will see that the two counties, out of 32 on the island, that had the worst statistics last year were Armagh and Tyrone.
“The Member correctly highlights the problem that we have to address.
“There are issues that clearly need to be addressed regarding the traceability of cattle in particular – sheep are more difficult – and there are issues where, on a cross-border basis, the work of the rural crime unit in analysing the data is of assistance to the PSNI, as it works in cooperation with an Garda Síochána to deal with issues where there are clearly some cross-border movements of stolen livestock.
“However, ongoing vigilance is required and we have yet to see the full statistical results of the rural crime unit’s first year of operation, which is only just complete.”
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