Residents at mercy of criminal activity - Claim

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Residents at mercy of criminal activity - Claim thumbnail

RESIDENTS in Newtownstewart claimed they have been left to the mercy of "druggies, paedophiles and travellers" whose antics had disrupted day to day life, terrorised communities, and left them isolated, desolated, fearful and abandoned. These were just some of the claims made at a crowded public meeting held last Wednesday night.
While representatives from the PSNI, the Housing Executive and Derry City and Strabane District Council attempted to provide locals with some answers and options, the anger and frustration of some locals could not be contained.
The meeting room in the Newtownstewart Centre 2000 soon proved way too small for the crowd that turned up. Even before the meeting began chairs were added and rows moved to accommodate the ever increasing crowd. It got to a point where Derry City and Strabane District Council's community development co-ordinator, Susan Doherty, had to point out that so crushed had the venue become that it was now a health and safety matter and she could only proceed with the meeting with the approval of the centre's officers.
Ten minutes after the scheduled start time, Ms Doherty was able to finally address the gathering which numbered approximately 80 people. She explained her role was to help facilitate the meeting which also involved the Housing Executive, the PSNI and any other partners deemed necessary to be present, including local politicians.
She explained this was the third meeting that had taken place with the community and a number of actions had been agreed. Updates would be provided on these and while everything wouldn't be solved that night, it provided an opportunity to take things forward, she said.
Strabane based PSNI Inspector, Marty Mullan, said since their last meeting on June 21 there had been a dramatic reduction of about one-third in the number of calls they had been receiving about Newtownstewart compared to the month preceding their last meeting.
New priority
"We're very happy about that - seeing some progress. We have increased our footprint and are maintaining a high visibility in Newtownstewart and we hope to maintain that and keep that going forward. We look forward to working with the council and establishing a Community Safety Forum for the town. That's our new priority here," he said.
Inspector Mullan added in relation to actions from their last meeting he said they had distributed leaflets which contained information about drugs, counselling and services. He added they looked forward to co-operating and going forward.
Next speaker was Declan Graham from the Housing Executive office in Strabane. He said at their last meeting it was suggested that the Housing Executive considered suspending placement for temporary homeless people at a premises in question on the town's main street. He said he had given an undertaking at the meeting he would speak to his area manager which he did the following day, June 22, and as of that date placements had been suspended from both the west area which covered Derry and the south area which covered Fermanagh and the Omagh areas. Since then, he added, that suspension had been extended throughout the whole of Northern Ireland so nobody was being placed in that b&b at present. The one person who had been placed there had been relocated.
"There will be no further placements there and hopefully the number will reduce. As for the rest of the people placed there that's a matter of process. I can't give any idea as to when that will happen. There's a lot of pressure on temporary placements," he said.
Some at the meeting who could not get into the meeting room itself complained they could not hear Mr Graham. When he explained he had no microphone, several at the meeting complained.
This brought the meeting to a second halt as more people were crammed into the tiny room standing up against every wall, while more chairs were moved in too.
When it resumed Mr Graham again outlined what the Housing Executive had done since the last meeting saying they felt they had made progress.
But this interpretation did not meet with universal acceptance from those present. Some claimed that some of these people were being "relocated" into nearby parks where children were.
"We don't know what's going in there."
Mr Graham said he couldn't answer the questions posed if people kept shouting at him.
He then explained that because of data protection legislation, he was not at liberty to tell anyone where anybody had been relocated to.
"What I'm saying is since the last meeting one person has been relocated from the temporary accommodation at main street to alternative temporary accommodation," he said.
One speaker asked was the Housing Executive not at liberty to let parents know who was being placed there.
"Should we not know if there are paedophiles, druggies or whatever there - are we not at liberty to know where they are?" asked one resident.
Data protection
Mr Graham explained that the Housing Executive was bound by data protection as well and once someone had been convicted of a sexual offence and they did their time in prison and were released, they were entitled under data protection to their privacy.
The speaker claimed she had been told differently by social services who said she could be told by the Housing Executive if a paedophile had moved into the area. Mr Graham said he was not aware of that.
Other speakers asked if the authorities were waiting for something to happen before they acted.
"Do we wait for an injury or until some child picks up a drug before something is done?"
Another speaker claimed there were plenty of people at that meeting who were afraid to identify drug users for fear of being attacked.
Inspector Mullan said if anyone came across information like that they should pass it on to the PSNI and it would be fed into their intelligence unit and acted upon.
Another speaker challenged this saying the biggest issue was the fact anyone making a complaint had to put it in writing.
Another speaker claimed 80 per cent of paedophiles re-offended "and they are being thrown into Newtownstewart and there's one nearly in every park and we have children playing in the parks.
"There's a play park being built up at Mourne Park, but there's no way I'd let a child play there and let a paedophile watch them," she said.
Other speakers at the meeting said they had not been told about any earlier meetings concerning these matters, but Ms Doherty pointed out businesses had requested the meeting with the agencies and no one was excluded.
Another speaker disagreed saying she knew first hand that both the PSNI and the Housing Executive did not want the public present "because they knew what would happen".
Other concerns mentioned included claims that while the accommodation on the town's main street might be suspended, this did not appear to apply to other areas in town. It was also hinted that if this continued locals would gather a petition to object to this.
Shouted down
As the debate intensified West Tyrone MLA, Daniel McCrossan, pleaded for order at the meeting as people wanted to have their concerns sorted out. He was shouted down by several speakers who claimed he did not know what was going on in the town.
There then followed a period of claim and counter-claim about various incidents including an alleged assault the previous weekend.
"I couldn't get my child out of my car because of this. Two people came out and hit a young cub. It was so hard I could hear the crunch of it. I phoned the police but got put on music for three minutes - then asked if I wanted to complete a survey about victim support," said another woman.
Several speakers asked about housing paedophiles in built-up areas or residential areas but were told if it was discovered a person had not disclosed his full details during an application, the Housing Executive could take that person to court and have him removed for a breach of conditions and that was the only way they could do it. In relation to how long this would take, Mr Graham said he could not put any time scale on the legal process.
A local businessman said one only had to look around at the meeting to see parents who were genuinely worried about the structure of the town, the type of people moving into the town and the safety of their families.
Another speaker asked if a house could be kept vacant while a person was in jail. Mr Graham explained that once they were convicted the Housing Executive would write to them to terminate the tenancy and normally this would happen but they couldn't just unilaterally end what essentially was a legal contract. When incidents were outlined to him about problems in one area, Mr Graham said he would not comment on individual cases in the town.
Another speaker was very critical of the Housing Executive saying she felt 'fobbed off' every time she rang and was fed up being told they needed more information or that the person she was making a complaint about had the right to live.
"What about the people of Newtownstewart? We have a right to live in our town without these so called individuals coming into our community and destroying it," she said.
One local resident said it seemed to him that since the new 'super council' came into existence Newtownstewart had "just become a dustbin for the two council areas".
"Any piece of dirt or scum paedophiles that had been pushed out of other towns by the paramilitaries seem to end up here. I've told my partner not to bring our child to Newtownstewart because you don't know what's going to be on that main street at any time of the day. If you people at the top [table] think Newtownstewart is so rosy you come and live in it," he said.
Inspector Mullan stressed that if people were scared walking down the main street they had to report it, otherwise the police would not be able to take any action to help.
"We are giving Newtownstewart as much presence as we possibly can at the moment but to be totally honest, we are not getting the level of reporting back that I'm getting from this meeting tonight," he said.
Inspector Mullan urged anyone who witnessed such an incident to ring 999 as that will get you through to officers who will deem it an emergency response and act accordingly.
Further stories emerged about burglaries, a car theft and assaults but, it was claimed, little or nothing by way of follow-up investigations or progress in some of these cases.
Speaker after speaker related stories about intimidation and said they harboured a fear of calling the police out for fear of retaliation.
"I know on one occasion a group of travellers who thought someone had shouted at them knocked on every door in an estate looking for someone they thought was responsible. It took an hour for the police to arrive. I think the police are afraid of the travellers," she said.
Another speaker claimed travellers' caravans were blocking up lanes and parking where no ordinary person would be allowed to park.
Mr Graham said if a nuisance was caused and it was in breach of a tenancy agreement, the matter needed to be reported and they would act against them.
The person who raised this said he feared he would be targeted if they did that.
Other speakers alleged travellers who got houses did not always reside in them and could be absent for long periods of time and then there could be as many as 20 people living in a house meant for one.
Another described incidents of travellers fighting among themselves late into the night with knives and spades sometimes used in these battles.
Inspector Mullan said: "We are trying to address things by increasing police presence and we're trying our best to root out this anti-social behaviour in Newtownstewart, but you have to report to us and tell us what's going on," he said.
Several speakers called for the closure of what they called the 'Half Way House' in the town which catered for people from other parts of the province who were in need of accommodation, but it was explained that there was a process that had to be gone into to make that a solution.
Another speaker said ever since the bypass came the town had been left behind, but urged that Newtownstewart be omitted from all Housing Executive plans to deposit people there until the new Forum was up and running. He added tensions were running too high to make any decisions at their meeting.
"We need direction from the statutory bodies on how to set up the Forum. We're coming from a standing start because we've no real association with anyone. We need a consultation day to help us move forward and it needs to be 100 per cent cross-community otherwise it won't work," he said.
Mr Graham explained that as a statutory body the Housing Executive was legally obliged to do certain things.
"Housing people in the right order was part of that statutory obligation," he said.
One woman replied saying that was all right for him to say, but he didn't have to live in Newtownstewart.
Those present agreed another meeting be held with a representative from all the different parks in town.
After further debate, it was agreed that a meeting would be held in the Newtownstewart Centre 2000 on Wednesday next, August 8, at 7.30pm.


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