Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny intends to show that his party will crack down on crime if he becomes Minister for Justice in a future government.
He has proposals for boosting Garda recruitment and retention; setting up a transport police unit; and increasing the number of youth diversion programmes among other areas.
However, Sinn Féin’s justice spokesman is setting out his stall at an uncomfortable time for the party.
Former Sinn Féin councillor Jonathan Dowdall – now a convicted criminal – has been giving evidence in the Special Criminal Court trial of Gerard Hutch for the murder of David Byrne.
Asked if this undermines his efforts to show that Sinn Féin is a party of law and order, Mr Kenny replied: “I certainly hope not”.
He said: “I think it’s a terrible situation”, that Dowdall was a councillor for Sinn Féin for less than a year, and had the party known, at any of that stage, of his involvement with crime “he wouldn’t have been a member of the party, never mind being an elected representative.
“It’s very unfortunate that that happened but that’s where we are.”
He said there is a court case ongoing and “I don’t think it is appropriate to say anything which would in any way jeopardise that”..
Mr Kenny says Sinn Féin wants to protect communities and this work “stands on its own and has its own value and is recognised in the communities that we work in by the people who elect us.”
Another challenge for an aspiring Sinn Féin justice minister is the legacy of the Provisional IRA’s killing of members of the Gardaí during the Troubles.
In December Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald offered her “heartfelt sorrow” for anyone hurt by republicans when she was asked about the issue during an interview on southeast Radio.
She also said: “nobody wearing the uniform of An Garda Síochána should have been hurt or harmed in any way in the course of that conflict.”
Mr Kenny says Sinn Féin fully acknowledges the “huge amount of hurt” caused to people across the island “because of the conflict in the North”.
He referred to Ms McDonald’s remarks and said the regret she expressed “is something that we all share”.
Mr Kenny described the Belfast Agreement as “a huge achievement” and said Sinn Féin had “every intention” of continuing the process of reconciliation.
[ Sinn Féin TD says he and family will move house because of attacks ]
He said “There are people out there who are angry with things that happened in the past.
“We can’t change the past but we can certainly try and change the future and make it better and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Mr Kenny said that “one or two” Gardaí have raised the issue of IRA killings of guards with him and he had conversations with them about it.
He said he has a good relationship with gardaí in his local area as do other Sinn Féin representatives around the country.
Mr Kenny added: “I’m sure there’s plenty of guards that vote for us as well.”
He said he did not attend an event in Kerry last month honouring former Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris which Fine Gael minister Simon Harris described as a “slap in the face to Garda families”.
Mr Ferris – who was jailed in the 1970s and 1980s for membership of the IRA and an attempt to import explosives – collected two of the killers of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe upon their release from Castlerea Prison in 2009.
Mr Kenny responded to the Fine Gael criticism saying: “That’s politics, that’s what happens. We’re all grown-ups. We take a slap, we give a slap”.
He added that “going back to the past” was “absolutely valid for people to do if they wish to” but he believes it is “a distraction from the here and now and from the issues that people need to deal with in the present and need to build to a better future.”
Like other Sinn Féin politicians hoping to become ministers in future, Mr Kenny has met senior figures from the Civil Service and other agencies relevant to his brief.
He has had meetings with secretary general of the Department of Justice Oonagh McPhilips as well as Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.
Mr Kenny describes Mr Harris as “very business-like and engaged and open to work with politicians and with people who are coming with the concerns of the community to him”.
He said it is “absolutely” his ambition to become justice minister and to show how his party would seek to combat crime.
Mr Kenny said: “We have an ambition to be in power in this State and we have an ambition to unite the country and we have an ambition to create a better Ireland for everyone.”
He said part of this is “ensuring that we make communities safer” and this means doing “everything possible” to resource the Garda, Courts Service and other agencies “to make sure that we can keep criminal activity to a minimum”.
He said data showed an increase in crimes such as fraud and deception; theft; threats to murder, assault and harassment; as well as robbery and burglary.
[ Thefts up 39% since last year, CSO crime figures show ]
Mr Kenny put this down to “a shortage of visible gardaí everywhere” and he raised concern around recruitment and retention of guards.
It was reported in December that while 370 new gardaí completed training this year, just 116 entered the Training College in Templemore.
Mr Kenny described the numbers training as “a real problem” and said he does not think the Fine Gael justice ministers over the last decade have taken adequate action to respond.
He argues: “Fine Gael has always prided themselves on being the party of law and order but that’s not reflected in the statistics we have here and it’s certainly not reflected in the numbers of gardaí that we see out on the beat and working in their communities.”
Mr Kenny said some of the recruitment issues have been around applicants failing fitness tests. He suggested recruitment could be increased by seeking to appeal to parts of the community that have been less represented in the Garda in the past.
He said that, although he hated using the term, members of the Garda have traditionally been drawn from the “middle class”, with children following parents and grandparents into the profession.
He said “that’s not happening any more” and “it has to be from non-traditional sources that Gardaí are going to find their recruits” in future. Mr Kenny said people from migrant backgrounds are one potential source of new recruits in a similar way to how Irish emigrants joined police forces in the United States.
Amid concern over instances of crime and antisocial behaviour on buses and trains, Mr Kenny said the establishment of a transport police unit within the Garda would be one of Sinn Féin’s “first priorities in the first year of government”.
He said it would be piloted in Dublin before being spread to other regions and it could only happen “in conjunction with a recruitment drive to increase the number of sworn for members of the force”.
A TD for Sligo-Leitrim, Mr Kenny is a father of four children aged between 18 and 23 and has been married to his wife Helen for over 25 years.
He said: “We are a close-knit family, and all get on really well and enjoy each other’s company.”
His father Vincent died last year at the age of 87 during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Mr Kenny said this was a very difficult time as the family could not visit him in hospital and it was hard on his mother Gerty “who is still with us at a very healthy 90 years”.
He began his working life in horticulture, growing mushrooms and advising other farmers in the northwest and midlands on their cultivation.
Mr Kenny said he later moved into “community work”. He mentioned a project in Leitrim funded through the Peace Programme involving ex-Republican prisoners and people who had been “traumatised” by the “negative impact of conflict”.
He has been in politics for almost two decades, having been first co-opted on to Leitrim County Council by Sinn Féin in 2003 before being elected as a councillor in his own right the following year and later winning a Dáil seat in 2016.
Frightening incidents have occurred at his family home in recent years.
The first was his car being burned in 2019 – a suspected arson attack that took place at a time when Mr Kenny was speaking out in support of refugees being moved to Co Leitrim. No one was ever found responsible.
Mr Kenny says the family are planning to move house as a result of the trauma of these incidents.
Asked if he ever regretted entering politics, he said he had the “great privilege” of being elected to “try and make things better for people” and his family “understand and value this rare opportunity”.
He said: “We may have to change where we live ... but we will remain united as a family” adding that he is “determined to continue to work in politics, as long as I get elected”.