John McLellan: Bonfire Night trouble shows difficulty in dealing with repeat offenders

A car goes up in flames on a night of carnage in the Capital
A car goes up in flames on a night of carnage in the Capital
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Maybe it’s because Edinburgh is such a peaceful place to live that incidents such as Sunday’s Bonfire Night mayhem in Loganlea seem so shocking. Isolated events are inevitable in a city of half-a-million people, but images of upturned, burnt-out vehicles spoke of an orchestration we rarely see.

The context in which events take place is every bit as important as the events themselves. So a man shot by a drug gang in Peckham does not have the same impact as someone gunned down outside the Abercorn Tennis Club. A terrified, naked man being chased by thugs in broad daylight would be shocking in most places, but in Buckstone?

Things like this simply don’t happen in Edinburgh, but, as many readers will remember, they did. A constituent sent over the images from the aftermath on Monday morning and I couldn’t quite believe my eyes that I was looking at pictures from Edinburgh. Maybe it was hyperbole, but what immediately sprang to mind was Belfast in the Troubles, or of the Meadow Well riots on Tyneside 26 years ago, or indeed of the 2011 London violence.

But while trouble on this scale is thankfully an isolated occurrence in Edinburgh, that’s no consolation for the officer injured when she was hit by a firework. And some communities are constantly plagued by lower level anti-social behaviour, be it motorcycle racing, thrill-seeking car theft, fly-tipping or graffiti, all of which affect the quality of life for the law-abiding majority.

All councillors’ inboxes are full of demands for action to prevent repeat offending but last Sunday’s trouble indicates we are no nearer to finding a solution and, as reported here before, the police are at their wits’ end when the relatively small number of people responsible are reoffending within hours of arrest and subsequent release.

The Craigentinny councillors are meeting local police commanders to discuss the situation, but guaranteed solutions are not easy to find.

There have been calls for a ban on firework sales to the general public, but I am instinctively reluctant to support something which spoils enjoyment for thousands of blameless families because of the actions of a tiny minority who didn’t need rockets to cause Sunday’s chaos. One constituent demanded that all unauthorised bonfire piles should be dismantled and this could have some merit.

Large bonfires are a magnet for gangs of people and, as they obviously lack supervision, are accidents waiting to happen. There is the usual call for better education, but I’m not sure how many of those who set cars alight and blocked access for fire engines weren’t fully aware of the fear they were bringing to the neighbourhood. It’s purely conjecture, but my guess is it’s precisely the power to cause such alarm that creates the thrill?

There is certainly value in making those responsible face up to the consequences of their actions, and maybe if they are forced to speak to those on whom their actions impact eventually their behaviour will change. But possibly the most uplifting message I received this week was from a mother of a student at the City of Edinburgh Music School, who lives right next to the scene of the trouble. Instead of running riot he spent Sunday practising for an audition. As she said, there are plenty of kids who care.