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At the mercy of the thugs

In the first of a two part investigation Laurence White reports on the worrying increase in violent crimes - not only on our streets but also in our homes

Just over a week ago in broad daylight, Hugh McAnally, a 32-year-old Scotsman who had moved to Northern Ireland, had his throat slashed outside Cosgrove's public house in the centre of Belfast.

He was attacked by a gang of loyalists, up to 30 strong, who launched an attack on the public house and then fled towards the Sandy Row area.

Today Mr McAnally remains critically ill in the Royal Victoria Hospital - another victim of the random violence plaguing Northern Ireland.

The province is officially portrayed as a region at peace with itself after three decades of terrorist violence. All things are relative. Terrorist violence is now almost a thing of the past - but in its place is a terrifying catalogue of crime striking at virtually every sector of society.

According to official statistics, the chances of becoming a victim of crime in Northern Ireland is much less than in England and Wales, but that is scant consolation to those who find themselves the victims of thugs, robbers or rapists - types of crime which are on the increase here.

According to PSNI figures during 2006/7, the number of violent crimes rose by 815. Sexual offences increased by 92 and there were 60 more robberies.

Behind all of those statistics lie horrifying individual experiences.

Take 82-year-old Jack Cassidy, who last December was manhandled by a gang of thugs who robbed him of his heating oil money and Christmas savings. The assault left him so terrified that he was afraid to leave his home in St Agnes Place in west Belfast, or even to answer the door.

That was by no means the worst assault on an elderly person. There have been countless cases of people in their eighties and nineties being battered to within an inch of their lives for their savings.

Last December, it was revealed that attacks on the elderly have jumped by more than 60% in the previous five years. Don't tell them that this is a peaceful society.

Don't say it either to the family of Paul Quinn, the south Armagh teenager battered to death after being lured to a barn across the border in Co Monaghan. Such was the severity of the attack, every bone in his body was broken as he was beaten mercilessly with clubs and iron bars.

His family allege that former IRA members were behind the attack although this has been denied by Gerry Adams and local MP and Stormont Minister Conor Murphy. Whoever was responsible, it was yet another shocking example of the savagery on our streets.

Increasingly knives or other weapons are drawn during attacks, often random and most unprovoked.

In December last year it was revealed that nearly 900 robberies and violent attacks involving knives were recorded during the previous 12 months. The previous year saw 1,000 knife-related crimes.

One of the most high-profile killings involving a knife was that of Robert McCartney, killed outside a Belfast city centre pub where a Sinn Fein celebration was taking place. Again the family blamed republicans.

But there have been other equally horrifying incidents.

Father-of-four Stefan Loughran was stabbed to death just yards from his Newry home. Belfast man Ciaran McAreavey needed 250 stitches and a blood transfusion after being repeatedly slashed by attackers. A Londonderry taxi driver was stabbed by a woman over a £3 fare.

Brothers Marc and Anthony Keller were stabbed and brutalised by a number of men in Belfast city centre in November 2005. Marc was stabbed in the heart and left blinded by the thugs.

Between April 2006 and February 2007 knives were used in six murders, 21 attempted murders and 242 assaults. They were also used in five assaults on police officers, in six sex offences and 315 robberies.

Police have organised two knife amnesties, taking hundreds of weapons from knives to swords off the streets, but yet the violence continues.

Such is the seriousness of the situation that the Government introduced new legislation which could double the jail sentence for anyone caught carrying a knife. That is only a deterrent if offenders are caught. And the chances of that happening are slim enough.

According to the Chief Constable's latest report, violent crime clearance rates fell last year to 33.2% from the previous year's figure of 53.9%. Some might feel that criminals, especially violent ones, have never had it so easy.

One of the most shocking increases in violence has involved women. In the past five years the number of recorded rapes has risen by almost 60%. In 2006/7 there were 457 rapes, more than one a day. The number of convictions remains steady at around 3%, a horrifying testament to the ineffectiveness of the policing and judicial system in dealing with this type of crime.

A new type of crime has become more prevalent in recent times - racism.

There were more than 1,000 racist crimes in the last recorded year, an increase on the previous year's total.

Those who travel to Northern Ireland as migrant workers or to start a new life are often made to feel very unwelcome.

The Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, became embroiled in a bitter exchange of words with Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey at a recent Policing Board meeting when Mr Maskey accused the force of not being up to the job of policing west Belfast.

His comments came after former IRA prisoner Frank McGreevy was beaten to death by a mob in his Lower Falls home on March 15.

Sir Hugh angrily rejected the claims and pointed out that the force needs greater public co-operation to prevent crime or catch the criminals.

It is a fair point, but it still does not allay public concerns about the effectiveness of policing.

People see falling clearance rates at a time of rising rates of serious crime and wonder if more cannot, or should not, be done to put the criminals on the back foot.

They wonder how a gang of about 30 loyalists can rampage through the city centre without being apprehended or how two robbers can hold up staff in the prestigious Lunns jewellers in the city centre at the height of tea-time rush-hour last Thursday and escape.

Northern Ireland may be emerging from its terrorist past, although dissident republicans are believed to have been behind at least three murders in the last couple of years - Andrew Burns, found shot dead near a church just across the border from Strabane, and Joe Jones and Edward Burns, found murdered in Ardoyne and west Belfast on the same day - but a new, more random, more personal violence has emerged. It is no less frightening, especially for those who are its victims.

The PSNI now numbers some 7,400 full-time regular officers with another 1,500 part and full -time reservists and constables. Many of the force's most experienced detectives have left or are involved in the investigations into past unsolved killings.

Many people would want them to be involved in solving current crimes and putting the violent thugs who strut our streets behind bars for a long stretch.

Northern Ireland may not have the meanest streets in these islands, but they are still dangerous and the threat of violence is growing.


From Belfast Telegraph