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No Law, No Order
“Tough on crime” rhetoric seems to have fallen out of favour with politicians. Why is that?
Here are a couple of Law and Order stories from Ireland that have come through my Twitter feed recently.
There’s the story of the man who was sentenced to five years for raping his own daughter, an incredibly brave woman who afterwards collapsed outside the court and cried out “why did I bother”.
There’s the man who was sentenced to 7 and a half years for breaking into the house of a 91 year old woman and sexually assaulting her, as well as assaulting a Garda. When asked if she was ok the woman responded afterwards “No. I’m glad my husband is dead”.
There’s the one-man sexual crimewave Chico Makamda whose activities I find difficult to summarise, you can read it for yourself - sentenced to 7 and 1/2 years for sexual assault and robbery with the final two years suspended on the condition he leave the country, which he visibly hasn’t done. 23 convictions since 2009.
There’s the 26 year old man who sexually assaulted a woman on the street “for a thrill”. The judge could have reactivated his existing suspended three year sentence but she decided to give him “one last chance”. He has 34 previous convictions for crimes including sexual assault. “One last chance” to do what?
The context here is that Ireland experienced a Sarah Everard moment last month. It convulsed the country and dominated the media since. One of the recurrent phrases used by politicians and public figures in the wake of that was that they wanted to “end violence” or “end all violence against women”. It’s utopian and crazy idea, though I understand where they’re coming from - to think, in the light of such a terrible act, “how can we make sure that such a thing never happens again” even if that isn’t doable.
As a sample of tone in which the issue was discussed, here is the exchange between the leader of the largest party in the country and the Taoiseach on this subject:
Mary Lou McDonald talks about Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes and the threat of “never-ending mansplaining… (and) rape”. She says that the “public appetite for action that matches the scale of violence that women face every day” and that the political system’s goal must be “immediate and long-term action to eliminate violence against women”. The only time the spectre of punishment is raised is in the context of the introduction of Hate Speech laws, mentioned by the Taoiseach.
So in relation to the cases above I ask you; are these scenes from a country where ending all violence against 50% of the population is a realistic prospect? And why would the obvious idea of stricter punishment for offenders be downplayed by media and politicians, when it’s both a concrete goal and something that would (I’d bet my life) be popular with most members of the public?
A couple of answers.
The Irish Government will always seek to apply the rule they perfected during Covid - always put an intermediary between you and the public’s experience of the problem. Sometimes, through sleight of hand, that intermediary is the public themselves. “Is there any way we can ask private enterprise, NGOs, committees, nebulous experts to take responsibility for this? Is it something we can chalk up to personal responsibility?” This works from both a cost-saving and a face-saving perspective.
You can see from the discussion linked that’s where this is going already: a cross-party committee; more funding for chosen NGOs to deliver services (rather than the government doing it themselves); and lots of nebulous talk about men stepping up, making changes, etc etc. Maybe even - whisper it - a Citizen’s Assembly sometime in the future? Be still my heart.
It helps that both the government and opposition parties like funding NGOs because of the usefulness of those organisations in changing the structure of public life without having to answer to or involve the public.
More interestingly, I think there is also an idea abroad that punishing someone for committing a crime is gauche, embarrassing and low-status. Politicians by their nature are social climbers, so are people who work in the media. They have detected that there is an ascendant worldview that revolves around fitting people into hierarchies of historic victimhood (good guys) oppression (bad guys). Traditional ideas of crime and punishment have no place in that system. If anything, they are aligned to the old moral system and therefore bad. What’s good is any kind of public declaration that positions you as someone who understand and venerates the hierarchy, and someone who will take the lead in ritually denouncing the hierarchy’s villains.
I know people who have coherent moral objections to longer prison sentences and a punishment-oriented justice system. I understand and respect that point of view as a moral and practical stance. I definitely don’t think that’s what’s at work here My point is not that punishment is the only solution to the problem of interpersonal violence or even that it’s a good solution; or that things like education and properly funding public services aren’t important because of course they are. But when I see a politician walking past a metaphorical 100 euro note on the ground without picking it up, I do wonder why.
That said, I don’t draw moral encouragement from living in a society that gives someone a less than five year sentence for raping their own daughter; I feel ashamed of and lessened by it. There is something sort of disgusting about a system that makes casual promises of Ending All Violence but hands out those sorts of sentences. When we use that kind of rhetoric we are making an explicit promise to past, present and future victims of crime that we think the goal is achievable and that we leave no stone unturned in achieving it. But if it’s not, and we won’t, then maybe we should tone down the pious baloney.