Belfast Telegraph

Tougher sentences, not just extra police, are needed to solve Belfast's crime wave

The attackers of boxer Caoimhin Hynes must face the full rigour of the law... not perversely be defined as 'victims' themselves, says Henry McDonald

Observing the growing legions of homeless people in central Belfast, many them young, vulnerable and wretched-looking, I often wonder what it must be like for them when darkness falls in this city.

Given the centre of Belfast's reputation for being a violent place at night, as recent stabbings and deaths have again sadly demonstrated, I can only imagine what a frightening place it must be for those for whom the streets, alleyways, entries and shop fronts are home.

Because these unfortunates must be the easiest targets for drunken thugs and bullies who at present are blighting our so-called "night-time economy".

Even promising young boxers are not safe from the yobs who roam the streets late at night and whose idea of topping off an evening of drink and drugs is to set upon someone they don't like the look of.

Caoimhin Hynes was unfortunate to run into a gang wearing tracksuits in Donegall Place in the early hours last month. The 20-year-old boxer, from the Holy Trinity club, suffered horrific knife wounds to his cheek.

Mercifully, the west Belfast man was released from hospital and is now back home with his family recovering. He had to have 28 stitches and surgery as medics patched him up after the assault.

Stars of the boxing world, such as Carl Frampton and Tyson Fury, stood in solidarity with Caoimhin, tweeting their support for him and their disgust over what happened. Hopefully, he will make a full recovery and be on his way to full fitness again ahead of the Commonwealth Games.

In fact, the boxer represents the best of what Belfast youth produces and reminds us again that the sport has been a great means through which aggression, courage and dedication can be channelled.

As I once recalled on a radio show a few years ago, while defending boxing from its critics, I cannot recall a boxer in the area where I grew up ever starting a fight, or fomenting a row at a street corner. They were the complete antitheses of the thug and the yob.

In general, they were disciplined characters, who practised self-restraint on their streets and saved their fighting skills for the ring.

The Chief Constable and the Police Federation both say they need hundreds more officers to cope, not only with the continued threat of dissident republican terror attacks, but also normal crime-fighting, including public order.

That is undoubtedly true, and that means more money needs to be directed at the PSNI budget to recruit more beat officers to patrol places like Belfast city centre in order to make the public feel safer at night.

Of course, that requires, in part, a functioning Executive at Stormont that builds consensus around policing and justice issues and, crucially, fights the PSNI's corner when it comes to raising extra finance from central government.

Yet another reason why our squabbling local politicians should get real after the general election and get on with the job of dealing with serious issues, such as keeping the streets safe.

The latter doesn't just apply to Belfast city centre and violent assaults committed there. There should be equal effort put into catching the racist morons who hurled bricks through the window of a house in east Belfast where a Sudanese family was living.

The stain of shame that racist violence has left on this city is as damaging to Belfast's reputation as the incidences of physical attacks by gangs of young thugs.

Yet, on top of more police being visibly present in far greater numbers, there is the whole question of deterrence in the courts, because only harsher sentences for those who physically attack their fellow citizens will provide real justice for victims such as Caoimhin Hynes, and also act to deter others from doing the same.

My late father once said to me that socialism and social democracy in the West lost the plot when the sociologists and social workers took over the Left from the late-1960s onwards.

What he meant by this was that, when the leadership of the Western Left started to theorise that criminals (except, of course, the capitalist criminal classes) were also "victims" of the system, the workers would turn away in disgust.

He argued that the working class still regarded those who committed crimes in their communities not as "victims" of the system, but rather as parasites who further exploited the exploited.

His point about the criminal classes being the enemy of the working classes (and, indeed, everyone else in society) is more apposite than ever, given that millions in the democratic world are turning away from the Left and centre-Left because they regard socialist, or social democratic, parties as being "soft" on crime.

Although the Right propagates a system based on grand theft and con artistry, vast sections of the electorate are turning that way, rather than towards the Left, and part of the reason for that is an issue like crime.

Which brings me back to the violent thuggery that bubbles up to the surface in Belfast city centre, mainly at weekends and especially when young people are off their heads on drink and drugs.

Yes, in terms of the front line, we, of course, need far more police on the streets, patrolling the hot-spots where attacks take place and people are most vulnerable. However, more cops on the beat is not enough. There has to be a deterrent to crimes against the person - even assaults involving so-called "one-punch" attacks.

The onus is on the courts system to impose harsher sentences on those who inflict physical harm on others. This means, in the vast majority of cases, custodial sentences, rather than fines or community work, being handed down to the perpetrators.

Whether it is those that viciously stabbed the boxer, or those that drove an immigrant, asylum-seeker family from their home, they are the enemies of all the people in this city.

They are not "victims".

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