Belfast Telegraph

Calling foul on council culture and barking mad bureaucracy

By Fionola Meredith

Well, I've been nicked. I was out for a walk with my Mum's daffy dalmatian dog. Soon, the inevitable happened and he squatted down to do his business.

Dutifully, I got out the plastic bag and bent down to lift it. Before I had a chance to bag it, however, I was stopped by a council dog warden, who accused me of failing to clear the dog's mess.

“Hang on a minute,” I cried in outrage, “you can see that I'm about to lift it.” But this particular pile of crap was not the one that she was referring to. She claimed that the dog had done another poop, back around the corner, which I hadn't noticed.

Farcically, the warden then proceeded to read me my rights, the full ‘anything you say’ routine. I felt as though I stood accused of mugging someone down a back alley, not unwittingly presiding over an illicit dog dump.

But was it a fair cop?

After the official had noted down my details in her little black book of civic offenders and departed, I went back to the scene of the alleged crime.

Not a poop to be seen, either on the path or on the grassy verge. The warden maintains that an improper defecation did occur and, what's more, that she marked it with a special poo-stick.

I can only assume that the dog went off-piste into an area of grassy wasteland, full of nettles and thistles. But even if he had, the council informed me, that was just the same as doing a great big dump right in the middle of the path.

They take a zero-tolerance approach to these matters, the official said, and a £50 fine would be coming through my letterbox very soon.

Dog mess is a disgusting problem and it's right that the council hold those responsible to account. But what concerns me is the lack of flexibility and accountability — heck, the lack of simple reason — in the system.

To my mind, dog poop on overgrown wasteground is very different from letting your animal soil the public footpath.

What's more, whether you're accused of grand larceny or, at the other end of the scale, you receive a fixed-penalty parking fine, everyone has the right of appeal.

But not if you're accused of a dodgy dog dump, it turns out.

No, sir. Then you have no choice but to suck it up.

You see, this is about so much more than dog mess. It's symbolic of the increasingly warped relationship between state and society in Northern Ireland.

Petty bureaucrats, obsessed with regulation, are now running the show. Common sense and tolerance have been jettisoned in favour of a small-minded, ‘rules-are-rules' culture.

It's not a new phenomenon: in 50 BC, Cicero characterised a bureaucrat as “a holder of a little authority in which he delights, as a boy delights in possessing a vicious dog”. Sounds familiar, no?

Today, the most minor misdemeanour is treated as a reprehensible criminal offence. It's the same with parking charges.

In the past, you had a 10-minute grace period if you over-ran the time on your parking ticket. Now the red-coated wasps are hovering, ready to sting you with a gargantuan fine the moment you exceed the limit. Again: no flexibility, no common sense.

These officious armies of wardens are supposed to be there to serve the public interest; yet, as is the case with all out-of-control bureaucracies, they turn into self-reinforcing systems where the public is regarded as the enemy.

Where does it all end? I'll tell you: in a punitive surveillance society, where you can't move an inch without incurring a fine.

Drop a crumb from your sausage roll? That'll be 50 quid, sir. Opened the front door wearing your underwear? Tut, tut, madam, public indecency. That'll be £80. Sorry, no appeal. Just cough up and shut up.

Seriously, our everyday civil liberties are under threat.

In Britain, local authorities have been using special surveillance powers to covertly monitor the people they suspect of smoking in public places.

Worse still, in California, a park ranger shot a man in the back with his taser gun after he walked away during a heated confrontation over letting his two lapdogs off the lead.

Thank God our wardens aren't armed — yet. But at the rate that institutional fascism is flourishing in this country, it can only be a matter of time.

Belfast Telegraph

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