PAEDOPHILES approaching children, travellers fighting with knives, drug dealing, car thefts, assaults, vandalism – a recent public meeting in Newtownstewart painted a grim picture of life in the local town.
Organised at the behest of frightened locals and attended by the PSNI and the Housing Executive, the meeting at the Newtownstewart Centre 2000 on Wednesday night heard from a great many residents about how the locality is being used as a “dustbin” for ex-prisoners from across the North.
With standing room only, at times the meeting descended into a shouting match as irate locals confronted Housing Executive officers, the PSNI and also the proprietor of a local bed and breakfast for allowing so many ex-cons to be relocated into the town.
Earlier this year it was reported how families who had lived in Newtownstewart for a generation were considering moving away due to this new criminal element taking up residence. Incidents of theft, house parties and drug abuse were all reported.
Consequently, in June, the Housing Executive agreed to suspend all ‘temporary housing placements’ at the bed and breakfast in question.
On Wednesday though, the atmosphere was heavy with tension as council’s community development co-ordinator, Susan Donaghey introduced speakers, PSNI Inspector Marty Mullan and Declan Graham from the Housing Executive.
Insp Mullan confirmed that reports of crime were down since the previous meeting with business leaders in June and Mr Graham confirmed that the suspension on temporary housing placements had been ratified.
No sooner had the speakers finished their summing up however, that the shouting began.
Mr Graham was denounced for refusing to stand and talk to people in the packed room, “face to face,” while the police were criticised for endemic inaction.
Mr Graham eventually came in for a barrage of loaded questions and catcalls when he suggested he was not at liberty to say to where people were being relocated from the bed and breakfast, dubbed ‘the Halfway House.’
One local woman said she had “first hand” information that one of the people being moved out of the bed and breakfast was being relocated mere yards away to a Newtownstewart estate.
She said, “The people will not stand for you moving these people into the houses.”
Shortly after the meeting descended into abject chaos with yet more arguing and shouting. The proprietor of the B&B was also the focus of many people’s ire.
At one point West Tyrone MLA, Daniel McCrossan attempted to step in to calm proceedings as the shouting match continued. However he too was shouted down. “You don’t know nothing about what goes on in these areas,” a woman called out. Another woman shouted, “You know nothing about it.”
At this juncture council officer Susan Donaghey interjected to say that if people didn’t calm down and ask one question at a time, no progress could be made and the meeting would be terminated.
However the tetchy and argumentative nature of proceedings continued with a host of locals lining up to give examples of assaults, thefts, intimidation and most of all, the apparent disconnect between people’s issues, and the statutory bodies.
One woman pointed out, “There are people in this room who are not willing to say, ‘Hold on, there’s a druggie’ because their houses are being attacked.”
Another added, “We’re gonna be attacked, our houses are gonna be attacked, cars are going to be stolen and they’re going to be vandalised – it’s time to get together and clean it up.”