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Danger or Opportunity?

  The Justice Department of the Irish Government responds to the recent alarming criminal incidents in the classical way more judges, more prison spaces, a reorganisation of the Gardaí. Benny McCabe urges that the real problem be exposed our economic model of development is destroying social cohesiveness. The price being paid is too high. In the crisis is an opportunity for an alternative way.
By Benny McCabe  

A sense of crisis is palpable. New outrages are reported on T.V., radio and newspapers daily. As the incongruities of a criminal justice system under severe pressure become manifest, the level of public anxiety and anger grows. Strong action is demanded; proposed solutions are many.

As the call to do something and to do it fast rings out, the story comes to mind of the priest in Donegal who wished to help one of his old parishioners. The old man lived in a house the thatched roof of which was badly in need of repair. The response of the old man to the priest's repeated exhortations to fix the roof was that "on a fine day it doesn't need fixing and on the bad days it is not possible to get out to fix it." The fine days may well be past. The reality of the new climate within which it has to operate is being impressed upon the justice system.

The response of the system is that which is to be expected from any organisation steeped in the tradition that the Department of Justice comes from denial, rationalisation, reform; the classical response of a few more judges here, more prison spaces there, a reorganisation of the Garda Síochána. But if, as has been suggested, the whole criminal justice system is leaking like a sieve, how effective can such responses be? Indeed how realistic is it to expect a solution from the Justice system if in fact it is dealing with the symptoms of a malaise emanating from a socio-economic system of which it is but one part?

The model of development which has been enthusiastically and, essentially, uncritically embraced by successive Irish Governments is that of the market economy pioneered by the United States and refined by the E.U. The criteria of success for such models is defined in terms of economic growth and indeed, if measured solely by such criteria, the Irish model is succeeding.

Critics would argue that the worldview of such a model involves seeing things in terms of resources to be exploited, including the environment and human beings, for the generation of profits. They would argue that the model itself is the cause of much of the damage and suffering at a personal, societal and global level; that the price of economic prosperity is a high one in terms of the cost in the quality of life. Indeed, if one examines U.S. society, some disturbing social facts emerge, e.g. the U.S. imprisons more of its population per capita than most other countries in the world, i.e. 1 per 250 of its people. This is a dubious distinction previously held by such countries as South Africa and the Soviet Union. Other facts such as that more U.S. citizens are killed by guns every 18 months than its entire casualty figure for the Vietnam War, or that the biggest lobby group in California is prison wardens, exceeding in number that of teachers, point to a direction that society seems to be headed.

One need look no furthertthan the responses of the government to the present crisis to see how political expediency rather than informed researchtt influences decisions.

The question can be validly posed, is this the route we too are headed? Is the inevitable price to be paid for the increased economic prosperity of our nation the increasing diminishment of the integrity of its social cohesiveness? Is there in fact a correlation between the indicators of social breakdown at a personal, societal and global level and increased wealth as measured by G.N.P.? Is this the type of society we wish to hand on to those who come after us?

If one looks through the literature one can see the writing has been on the wall for some considerable time. Crises of a similar nature in the past have led to the setting up of a host of commissions and committees e.g. Kennedy, Conroy, Task Force on Child Care, Whittaker. All have examined in depth the underlying issues in the present debate. They have made detailed analyses and well thought out recommendations. By and large these have been ignored and forgotten about.

One need look no further than the responses of the Government to the present crisis to see how political expediency rather than informed research influences decisions. Research now clearly indicates that a window of opportunity for effective intervention lies for children at risk in the 6-12 age bracket. While a recent British Economic and Social Research Council report has called for a reallocation of resources from 3rd level education to nursery and preteen programmes, our present Minister for Education, a socialist, has focused instead on free University policies. The rate of recidivism for Mountjoy is estimated at 70%, there is essentially no commitment to rehabilitation nor are therapeutic interventions available to children who at an early age are identified as probable violent offenders later in life.

The Conference of Religious of Ireland, CORI, has shown that the disparity in income between an unemployed couple and one with an income of £40,000 has increased by £1400 during the life of the present Government. These and many other decisions validly pose the question of whether there is any commitment to deal with the causes of crime as opposed to reacting to its consequences.

It is now 10 years since Mikael Gorbachev acknowledged that the faults of the communist model as expressed in Eastern Europe were only too obvious to behold. He went on to caution that the faults of the capitalist model were there also though not yet so obvious. The sense of euphoria which gripped the West with the collapse of the Eastern bloc has long since dissipated. Now that the focus on the 'enemy without' has been removed, awareness of problems within emerge. Here the danger of a response in terms of the 'enemy within' is a real concern.

My own experience of working with criminal justice systems and issues in Ireland, the U.S., and Latin America would lead me to the conclusion that many of the real questions in this debate are not even on the agenda, in particular the issue of the economic model which increasingly influences our attitudes, values, and lives. One of the most comprehensive and authoritative studies on criminal activity by Farrington and West identified poverty and deprivation in an affluent society as one of the root causes of crime. Theirs and numerous other studies show the effects that unemployment have on a society.

Whilst the Government and the media indulge in their fetish with unemployment figures, Jeremy Rifkin in his book, The End of Work, predicts that as we move into the Information Age and technology kills employment, there will be jobs for only 20% of youth in the next century. Despite all the research, band-aid responses to paper over the cracks are still proposed in terms of solutions. That our model of socioeconomic development is working well for some, that it has positive aspects such as a safety net, there is no doubt. The question however must be put whether the price to be paid in terms of human well-being is too great. I would argue that it is.


The present model of development I would hold is unsustainable, economically, socially, environmentally, and humanly. The rationale is not working. There are even questions about the viability of the E.U. as the structures strain under the pressures. The gaps between regions and sectors continue to increase and the end of the handouts comes into view. The role of government has become one of second line management. Power no longer resides in elected assemblies but rather in the stock exchanges and financial institutions. To expect any type of real change from government appears unrealistic. So where to then as the cracks widen and the price to be paid in human terms increases? Down the great path pioneered by the U.S.? Or is there another way? In a time when people have little sense of control over the decisions which affect their lives; when the experts say the problem is with the symptoms, that the model is fine; when the consciousness is by and large a submissive one, it might appear naive to suggest that there is indeed the possibility of a different way.

It is in the midst of the very uncertainty being experienced that the possibility of a new opportunity emerges. It is no longer realistic to shop in the supermarket of international ideologies. The best before date has expired on all of its products. To find a way forward will be a slow and sometimes painful process. It involves a number of factors.

The first has to do with people finding their voices again and using them to voice their concerns and aspirations. The next has to do with understanding people understanding the forces at work in their lives breaking the mystique that the experts know what's best for us. It involves people coming together to deepen their understanding and analysis and also to gain strength from each other. It involves coalitions. The debate needs to be based on our history as a people and on our culture. The resources available to us as a nation need to be identified, our aspirations and values to be clarified.

There are models. To create a New Society is not an easy undertaking but what are the alternatives? To continue down the same road with all the ramifications that that clearly holds? Gorbachev went on to say that the historical task facing this generation of young people was to learn from the two great models of communism and capitalism, to acknowledge their respective strengths and weaknesses, to learn from their mistakes and to create a new model which would respond to the needs of human beings. The challenge is to reintroduce human beings, to move them from the periphery to the centre. This challenge is ignored at our collective peril.

Benny McCabe is a psychologist who has worked with criminal justice systems and issues in Ireland, the United States, and Latin America. He now resides between Aran and Belfast.

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