Recently, the North Belfast News conducted a vox pop asking, “What do the people of north Belfast think about anti-social behaviour?” Six people were asked and their views varied from “It’s bad, I think something needs to be done about it” to “I don’t see much of it where I live. I think it’s only in certain areas.” Another referred to a “bad element” and “wheelie bins set on fire”.
The North Belfast News is owned by the Belfast Media Group, of which the Sinn Fein MLA and Finance Minister, Mairtin O Muilleoir, is a director. For that reason, I was particularly interested in the article, because the North Belfast News is never that far away from current Sinn Fein thinking.
The introduction noted that “anti-social behaviour occurs in every community”, gave examples of vandalism and under-age drinking and stated that, “the number of anti-social behaviour incidents have been growing”.
The seriousness of the issue was highlighted by the front page story in the same newspaper, which described a New Lodge “mother’s nightmare as thugs run riot on the street”.
Of course, the issue is not restricted to any one community, or any one constituency. I have heard concerns expressed about it by councillors and MLAs from across Northern Ireland and I see reports of anti-social behaviour in newspapers from across Northern Ireland. It is something that affects many people.
A few months ago, I was appointed as one of the DUP members on the Northern Ireland Policing Board and, along with my colleagues, we have stressed the need for the PSNI to make this problem a priority.
The reason is that, day after day, we all hear complaints from constituents about the way in which anti-social behaviour harms their quality of life.
Noise, nuisance, threat and damage can have a really detrimental effect on those who have to endure them. Moreover, in some cases, this has been going on for months — or even years. It wears people down and they can see no end to it and no escape.
The Chief Constable and senior PSNI officers tell us that this is a societal problem and it is true that it is more prevalent in society today than it may have been in the past.
We live in a more disrespectful age, with less thought for others, and that is indeed a social and moral issue.
It is also true that policing alone is not the answer, but policing is most certainly part of the answer.
There may be arguments about definitions and the relationship between anti-social behaviour and criminal behaviour, but most folk will find such arguments esoteric.
Moreover, there is a general public expectation that the PSNI will deal with such problems.
It is clear, then, that we need a more coherent, multi-agency approach to the problem and that will involve other services as well as the PSNI. I have no doubt that there is a role for education and the Youth Service.
Moreover, planners and architects should design buildings and public spaces in a way that does not accommodate, or facilitate, those intent on anti-social behaviour.
Dark corners tend to attract people intent on anti-social behaviour, while good lighting is a deterrent.
There is also great value in alley-gating schemes, that prevent people loitering in ungated entries.
We need a coherent, multi-agency approach, but some organisation has to take the lead on this and then draw in the other partners and I would suggest that the PSNI are well-placed in that regard.
I have been encouraged by the cross-party support for more focus on anti-social behaviour and some encouraging signs that the PSNI are starting to think more seriously and strategically about the problem. It can’t be left in the “too-difficult” box.
So, the issue is now very much on the agenda and the next step is to develop that effective multi-agency strategy, with the necessary resources, to tackle a problem, which otherwise will continue to erode public confidence in policing.