Eric Waugh: Youth crime out of control
The tale might well be taken straight out of Dickens' slums of Victorian London. For here we have gangs of urchins shinning up the drainpipe of a church to strip the roof and kick their idle boots through stained glass windows.
When the church is at holy communion on Sunday morning, they open the doors and toss in bangers. But this is not Dickens: this is Belfast, summer 2007. To be precise, it is east Belfast - St Donard's parish church, Bloomfield, on the edge, not of slums, but of the leafy suburbs of the city.
The rector of the parish, the Rev Charles McCartney, and his people are seeking to face up to this. But it is not the destructiveness alone which causes their concern: it is the reaction - or the lack of it - of authority in these parts. The fact is that, in this affair, two well-seasoned jackals of our society come home to roost. The first is the inhibited police.
Pause for a moment to note what happened in Mr McCartney's case. When, following one of these incidents, the victims telephoned the police one evening, their call was re-routed, for their nearest police station, Willowfield, is unmanned at night. Strandtown and Castlereagh likewise being closed, the church callers were referred to the nearest station that was open, several miles away on Lisburn Road. The desk constable said they would alert a police car.
I do not know how long the car took to respond to the call. In a sense it is immaterial; for the birds would long have flown. When I questioned a constable some time ago near my home he told me, in a mixture of apology and disgust, that there was but one police car covering the whole northern half of the county.
Nor are things to get better. The PSNI already has only half the police personnel once available to the RUC. It was Patten who recommended cutting numbers in half. Loftily, he prescribed for a normal society which did not exist. Now, with the Treasury screwing down public spending, more cuts are on the way. Overtime is to be rationed; hundreds of civilianised jobs are to be scrapped; and a call centre, planned to make it easier for you to get a prompt answer when you phone, is marked for delay. More stations are marked for closure and the building of new ones put off.
Each of these economies will increase the burden on existing staff and hit the service they give to you. This is a poor prospect, for St Donard's is not an isolated incident. Remember the doctor's surgery closed in Craigavon because thugs broke in and attacked the staff, with a woman GP assaulted by hooded savages as she left the premises in the early hours? Or the armed robberies which have closed down shops in south and east Belfast?
But the police are also inhibited by the second jackal: the insidious disease of political correctness. Take the beleaguered Mr McCartney. He had the good sense, following one of the assaults on his church, to take photographs of the miscreants on his church roof. But when a police patrol arrived, did they commend him, eagerly asking for the evidence? Not a bit of it! He was advised that this was not the way at all. They did not want to see the photographs, let alone make use of them. In fact, in his own words, he was " verbally cautioned"! I kid you not.
When the media showed critical interest, however, the PSNI said there would be an inquiry to find whether correct procedure had been followed. The pictures would be examined and, yes, they could be used. But if the media had not shown interest?
The clergyman's interview involved giving his date of birth, his nationality and other details, to the extent, he said, when the police left he felt he was the criminal not the victim. This mindless bureaucracy - for that is what it is - does not advance detection. By wasting police time and insulting citizens, actively it hinders it. In fact it is another symptom of the underlying social decadence which produces much of the crime in the first place.
That decadence is fed by the endless baying about human rights, but rarely a cheep about responsibilities; it is fed by fearful parents looking the other way and by the mother who congratulates her pregnant daughter of 14. ("Cheers for housing benefit, child benefit!") It is fed by the shameless, money-grubbing, anti-intellectual bias of our pop culture; by the death of respect; by television which purveys violence as the norm; and by technical toys which, fed to the young, are producing a generation the duller of whom are semi-literate.
What might today's vandals of St Donard's have been doing this time of year 50 years ago? Camping with the Scouts or the BB? Impossible to say; but think about it.