The coordinators of a Community Alert scheme believe that it has helped to both unite and protect one of the largest parishes in Ireland.
In response to a rise in crime in rural Ireland in the 1980s, the Community Alert programme was formed by Muintir na Tíre and An Garda Síochána.
Each group is established with An Garda Síochána as a partner, with communities being asked to relay concerns about crime, suspicious or anti-social behaviour in their locality.
Today, there are 1,400 Community Alert schemes in operation across the country.
Gardaí said that the movement has been enhanced by text alert systems, which can broadcast verified crime and public safety information instantly.
Garda crime prevention officer for Co. Kerry, Sgt. Jim Foley told Agriland that when issues arise within a rural community officers face different challenges, compared to urban areas.
“The ability to communicate and get the information to us [An Garda Síochána] as soon as possible is paramount in our ability to prevent crime and to investigate and solve cases,” he said.
“The one thing a criminal doesn’t want is attention. They don’t want attention from the community, An Garda Síochána or anybody. So the more attention you can give to these people, the better.
“The role of Community Alert is different from area to area as issues vary, but at its very centre is the welfare of people,” he added.
Noel Keane, a committee member of the Ballymacelligott Community Alert Group in Co. Kerry, said that in the 1980s and 1990s elderly people living alone and the farming sector were targeted by “very mobile criminal groups”.
“They travelled long distances and were difficult for Gardaí to apprehend across the maze of back roads and byroads of the rural countryside,” he noted.
Ballymacelligott, which is among the largest parishes in Ireland, founded a Community Alert group in the 1990s.
The organising committee used a combination of grant aid and fundraising to provide panic alarms and home security systems for elderly people.
Noel Keane said that the alertness and awareness of every person in the community to strange activities by individuals or vehicles unknown to them is key to the effectiveness of the scheme.
“This awareness by all, has dealt a severe blow to criminals. In most cases their cover is blown and their choice is to leave the area or not even come there in the first place,” he said.
In 2007, Noel said that the group became one of the first in the country to launch a text alert system:
“At that meeting the example was given of a field of rabbits happily grazing along by a ditch. If just one rabbit sees a threat like a fox, it rapidly taps its back feet off the ground. In seconds, others repeat the audible tapping, until each rabbit in the field is aware of the threat.
“When compared with the 1990s, rural crime figures have been greatly reduced. However, community awareness has to be forever focused, as there will always be those who are willing to exploit the vulnerable,” he added.
Fionnán Fitzgerald, who is also a Kerry county councillor, operates the text alert system in Ballymacelligott:
“Initially about 20 mobile numbers were on the system but this has now grown to just over 1,100, which is a fact that the group is extremely proud of. The system has adapted many times to keep pace with changing technology.
“The strength of the system is publicly known and this is a great deterrent to those who would seek to enter the area for no good reason,” he said.
The system has also been used during storms to alert locals to fallen trees, blocked roads and power cuts.
Fionnán Fitzgerald said that “the community of Ballymacelligott has been drawn together and united by the text system”.
“It is something that every area and parish in Ireland should embrace and take on. The advantages to both individual and community are massive.
“In the end Community Alert removes isolation, builds community and actively promotes security in conjunction with An Garda Síochána,” he said.
Ballymacelligott Community Alert Group also used its Facebook page to live stream religious services during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns.
Today, funding for the service is provided through a church gate collection and a locally-produced calendar with pictures from around the parish, which also provides an important link to home for the diaspora.
Although, the text alert has proven very useful, Noel Keane said people can be naturally inclined to drop their guard when crime reports are low.
“Online crime has become very prevalent in recent years, but there will always be an element of society intent on carrying out the more traditional form of criminality. Essential in protecting against this means every Community Alert group, like ours in Ballymacelligott, will have to strive to be ever active and vigilant,” he concluded.