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Defending one’s property: Nally, Gangland Violence and the Media December 19, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Ireland, Irish Politics, Libertarianism, Media and Journalism, Social Policy, The Left.
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The Nally case depresses me. For many reasons. For those unaware of the broad outlines let me recap. In October 2004 Padraig Nally, a farmer in Mayo, came upon a man at the back of his farmhouse. In any event, he shot the tresspasser in the side, one John Ward – a member of the Travelling community, who then attacked him. Nally then beat him with a stick and then went away to get more cartridges from a shed for his gun before shooting Ward in the back as he retreated. He took the body and dumped it over a wall.

Ward was no innocent with more than 80 convictions and four bench warrants for his arrest out the day of his killing (although these weren’t actually executed since he was being treated in a psychiatric hospital at the time). Nally was, according to those who knew him, a man living in perpetual fear of being robbed or attacked on his land.

In the Central Criminal Court the jury acquitted Nally of manslaughter after three days of consideration.

In a way I don’t really want to discuss the case, other than to echo the thoughts of the Irish Times editorial on the matter where it notes that “physical force must remain intolerable in all but exceptional circumstances”.

However I do want to consider the overall environment within which we see this and similar judgements. And let’s contextualise it a little with a personal anecdote. In 1995 I was living off Ardee Stree in the Coombe in a rented house. The area was, like almost all urban areas, reknowned for the number of burglaries, and talking to neighbours and those in local shops the impression was that it was ‘a matter of time’ before my house was hit.

And so it proved to be. I was woken one night around two o clock to the smell of cigarette smoke wafting up from downstairs. Unusual, since I’d recently given up smoking in the house. A moment’s thought and the sound of voices downstairs made me realise that there were intruders in the place. Now it was a smallish house, two bedrooms upstairs, a small hall with a tiny front room off it leading into a larger sitting room/dining room area with a narrow kitchenette leading off it. A back yard beyond was surrounded by high wall with that most inviting of decorative features, razor wire (installed by a previous landlord). I was fairly sure whoever had come in had made it through the front door, so in a way it became a simple issue of trying to get these people out.

I got up, turned on the stereo upstairs, made some noise, walked around, waited ten minutes (no Nally me, but then no single barrel shotgun either) before gingerly going downstairs to suss out the situation. No sign of the intruders, but a puddle on the floor of the kitchenette (a rainy night, nothing more), a couple of bags taken, a shelf of CDs too and the stereo and TV on the floor where they had clearly being trying to untangle the entangled electric cables before making off with them.

The door had been opened, in the absence of the Yale lock being set (I’d been away in the Aran Islands the previous weekend and was still in recover – so to speak), by a small triangle of clear plastic which they’d enterprisingly used to mess around with the other lock.

The physical losses? Perhaps forty or fifty punts, some CDs (some of which I’ve yet to recover – anyone with Disco Inferno’s 1994 EP ‘The Last Dance’ email me – cheers) and that was about it.

Postscript one: the next day, after calling the Gardai, who arrived and were suitably sympathetic and suitably realistic about catching these guys, I was out on the street outside the house when two guys in their early 20s passed by. One said, ‘Got 50 pence? Ah, no you don’t cos everything was cleared out last night’. Bizarrely one was carrying a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. So clearly a busy night for them.

Postscript two: A week later my housemate was in the kitchen rummaging through the cutlery, and asked ‘Where’s the carving knife?’. It was gone, as with the puddle. Obviously their first port of call was to procure a weapon in case I came down suddenly.

It’s a great little story, isn’t it, with a nice sting in the tail. Except for:

Postscript three: It took, and I kid you not, years to sleep well again in that house. Fitful sleep, bad dreams or nightmares – call them what you will, sudden waking, anxious reaction to small sounds. Even today I still go through phases where the after effects of that night recur. Not often, but too often for comfort – hence I have more than some sympathy for Padraig Nally’s state of mind.

So I fully understand what it is like to have ones living space violated, to see that violation carried out with a significant level of threat and to then have to accept that this threat is constant.

However, what’s the solution? Lock the door properly was obviously the first and most important one (although a later resident awoke to find people trying to get in across a sloping roof to the upstairs back bedroom some years later – the razor wire providing an insufficient level of deterrant). Had I my own weapon would that have made me significantly safer? I tend to doubt it. I was at a disadvantage one way or another as I came downstairs, if they were still there, with any sort of a weapon, they were in a position to see me before I could see them. But above and beyond that what level of force would I exercise in defence of my property? Well, taking the Nally route, shooting someone – twice? Perhaps, dependent upon the level of threat. I’d certainly have had no qualms in the context of someone attacking me outright.

But there is a broader point. I live in the inner city beside a location where there has been unending physical and noise disruption for the past six years. Due to this local residents – myself included in one instance – have on occasion been the beneficiaries of compensation payments from various commercial and semi-state organisations. I don’t begrudge anyone that compensation, nor do I think it entirely unwarranted. Yet, I can’t help thinking that in the context of living in the largest urban centre on this island some level of discomfort is both inevitable and to be expected and that in certain instances the compensation has been wildly disproportionate to the distress caused.

According to the media the perception of crime is on an upward curve, indeed Pat Leahy, Political Correspondant of the Sunday Business Post, has an excellent article on just this matter, and concludes that the evidence is that in the context of considerable population growth crime is in actual fact dipping slightly, that the funding for the Gardai has been effectively doubled over four years and that we have significantly increased numbers of Gardai. So why this misperception? Why did Nally live in fear of his life? Could it be that we live in a society which finds it far easier to enjoy vicariously the idea that this state is but one step away from the anarchy of the American frontier, than the rather sedate (in European terms) levels that we endure?

In 1995 there were 43 homicides, in 2005 58 homicides during a period where the population increased by half a million. The concentration of murders has been in part due to an upswing in gangland violence, in 1996 8 incidents, in 2006 24 so far this year. This clearly is a significant issue, and one which greater resources should be targeted towards. However, in overall terms crime has remained relatively constant in the ten years with 102,000 approx recorded in 1995 and 101,000 approx recorded in 2005. This during a period where recording of crimes has improved. There are of course caveats, unrecorded crime is like an iceberg, it is literally unknowable, and it seems counter-intuitive that recorded crime should drop during a population increase. Yet, it’s important to note that this has also accompanied a time of rapid economic expansion and prosperity, which is widely recognised as having a positive impact on crime figures.

So what am I saying? Nothing hugely original, although as I say it was refreshing that the Sunday Business Post was so honest about the situation. Without being cold about it, crime is a feature of contemporary society. It’s difficult to impossible to envisage that this will alter radically in the near future.

There is a utopian strain in human thinking which sometimes seems to believe that all pain can be eradicated from life. I don’t believe that for a moment whether those who propose this are of left or right. And perhaps the price that is paid for living in complex societies, is one where instances like that which happened to me – and has left some degree of a lasting impression – are simply inevitable. That’s not to argue for complacency either.

A media which, as the media does, relies upon exaggerating fear of crime out of all proportion to reality – and not just crime, we see the same pattern in almost every aspect of life, from health, education, food and so on – serves us poorly. These are real and terrible crimes that are committed, and resources targeted against specific areas are necessary (albeit in the context that significant resources have already been given to the Gardai). But there is another factor as well. Perhaps it’s my ideological approach, but I find the hypocrisy of some of those engaged in discussing these issues often risible. Having worked in areas related closely to the media the reality is that that and other areas of this society are awash with drugs. While ideally I would take a libertarian approach to drug usage, the prevailing reality is that those using them are locked directly into a process which ends at the death of an innocent plumber as ‘collateral’ damage in a gang war. And therefore, for what it’s worth, I think drug usage in this society in this point in time to be reprehensible. Unfortunately what I think is irrelevant, and consumption is unlikely to decrease.

And this is where these supposedly disparate issues link. The shooting in Mayo is difficult to entirely understand outside the context of a society where physical danger to individuals in relation to crime is exaggerated. Gangland murders are difficult to understand except in the context of a society where illegal drug consumption is considered tolerable by significant elite or semi-elite sectors within that society. So yet again we have another area of contemporary life where profit from human misery in all these areas takes precedence and a Pharisaic approach on the part of the media, the general public and others remains the standard.

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Comments»

1. Eagle - December 20, 2006

There’s a lot here. I have a couple of quick reactions.

One, while the crime threat may be exaggerated by the media, I seriously doubt that this is new. I’m sure if you were to review the papers from any previous decade you’d see lurid headlines about murders, etc. and constant harping about violence and fear. So I’m not sure the media coverage is that different from what has come before.

Two, Nally lived in rural Ireland. Rightly or wrongly many rural dwellers feel more isolated than they have ever before. There are fewer people living in rural areas and the connection to neighbors is not what it was and the ease of ‘outsiders’ getting in and out of remote areas (thanks to the car) has made it more difficult for neighbors to keep an eye out for one another. I don’t know the landscape around where Nally lived, but I’ve heard rural people talk about how much they can’t stand all the reforestation because that has further cut them off from their neighbors. Your American frontier analogy may seem absurd, but I’m not sure that those who live in isolated, underpopulated rural areas would think it so.

Your missing carving knife is very interesting. It’s a good lesson for me. I’ve often considered that if I heard someone in the house that I’d grab the handy baseball bat and head down to confront them. Maybe not a great idea.

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2. Lorenzo - December 20, 2006

One point worth making in relation to Nally was that he was repeatedly the victim of theft. It wasn’t just a case of fear being whipped by the media but by personal experience too.

Your response to your burglery was entirely correct. But if the breaking and entering occurred again and again (and ditto for your neighbours), eventually wouldn’t something give? Nally, rationally or irrationally, decided that he wasn’t going to take it anymore.

That said, his actions went well beyond a reasonable response.

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3. WorldbyStorm - December 20, 2006

I’d put it this way Lorenzo. I can understand his initial shock and fear at the discovery of an intruder on his property. I can just about understand his shooting Ward the first time. I can just barely understand his beating him with a stick. After that I think we enter a different realm. But I agree, repeated burglary would trigger an extreme response.

And taking up Eagles point, it is true that in certain rural areas there is a significant fear of violent crime, but this is probably as true of one hundred and two hundred years ago as it is nw. In a way this is very interesting because thirty years or so ago I remember spending summers across the country with my family examining early Christian burial sites, most of which appeared to be located well away from roads on farm land. It was as a matter of courtesy that my father would approach the farmer to get permission (most of the time anyway) to enter the land. I can’t recall a single hostile or negative response although suspicion or puzzlement might be the initial emotion, quite the opposite, often we en masse would be invited in for a cup of tea. So times change and radically.

The carving knife has made me think long and hard about how strongly I would respond again in such circumstances. On a slight tangent, when my father died he left behind a working rifle. For a while I toyed with the idea of maintaining it for sentimental reasons, but the costs for a suitable case, etc, etc were prohibitive.

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