What would you do if it was your daughter? How would you feel if your little girl was attacked so violently by that coward, to the sickening chorus of cheers from other teenage girls?

What would you do if it was your daughter? How would you feel if your little girl was attacked so violently by that coward, to the sickening chorus of cheers from other teenage girls?

The so-called ‘happy-slapping’ episode in Ballymun — which was exposed in the mainstream media this week – but has been doing the rounds on the web since February, is a challenge to us all. This type of outrageous behaviour, which was coveted, lauded and disseminated widely, constitutes a new low.

Last week, we saw computer-literate feral teenagers, using modern expensive technology, dressed head to toe in expensive branded gear with top-of-the-range camera phones, beat up a girl and then upload the evidence onto the net. It was also revealed that this happy-slapping outrage has been downloaded by thousands of others for the laugh.

The first thing to establish is that the kids who uploaded and downloaded this material are not mired in poverty; they have too much money and no values.

This episode is a watershed for our system because, for years, we told ourselves that, if we fixed the economy, the society would follow. We convinced ourselves – both on the right and left of the spectrum – that if people were given a stake in society, they would value it and change their behaviour accordingly. Last week’s news from Ballymun kicks that theory in the face.

Since the 1970s, it has been fashionable to blame bad behaviour, thuggery, vandalism and low-level violence on poverty.

We were told by sociologists that if these lads were not poor, they would not act violently. The dominant philosophy was that the bad behaviour of others was, in some peculiar way, our fault.

Had most of us not got on with our lives, made something of our chances and tried to instal a set of values in our kids, these guys would not feel resentful, isolated, unloved and prone to violence. So the violence of the underclass would not happen if there was not so much inequality.

The big idea governing western Europe since the 1970s was to ameliorate income inequality and people would behave in a civilised fashion. This could be seen as an unspoken bargain in society: we deliver our side of the bargain and you behave yourselves. Or, to put it another way, we make sure you have a stake in the place and you respond by making the best of your opportunities. In this way, all boats rise. Now this has been achieved in Germany, Austria and most of northern Europe. You rarely see casual violence in these societies and, when there is, this carry on is not tolerated by the police. The police feel within their rights to clamp down, because inequality cannot be cited, nor society blamed, for any bad behaviour.

We now have a dilemma because we have done a good job at reducing inequality, yet we do not have the security on our streets that is the other part of the bargain. According to the EU, Ireland is smack in the middle of the EU average when it comes to the gap between the rich and the poor. We are considerably more equal than Britain, Italy or Spain. Our incomes have been rising across the board at a rate not seen in any European country in 40 years and, with unemployment at 4 per cent and immigrants flooding in to satisfy the demand for labour, anyone should be able to get work.

In short, the system has become inclusive – to the extent that it can. In addition, social welfare is amongst the most generous in Europe and will be increased by more than inflation in this budget.

All this should have delivered the other side of the bargain, which is that those who would be violent would have more respect and they would behave themselves.

But the lads who kicked that girl in the head and then laughed, while filming the whole thing, were not poor by any international measurement. They probably have more disposable income than their parents ever had.

So what are we to do? The happy-slapping episode and anti-social behaviour in general poses a unique challenge to both left and right. The centre-left believed that making society more equal would speed up the march of civilisation.

How hollow that rhetoric seems now.

But equally, the right, which argued that the full force of the law could be used against anti-social behaviour, stands similarly naked. Recidivism indicates that the law seems incapable of instilling basic respect in these teenagers. So where do we start? The first thing to realise is that it is the people in their own communities who are terrorised by local thugs. Survey after survey shows that young men in poorer communities are both the victims and the perpetrators. Liverpool trackie typically beats up Liverpool trackie, rarely an Abercrombie sweatshirt. So Ballymun terrorises Ballymun, not Howth.

It is hard, therefore, to suggest that it is resentment against the ‘haves’ by the ‘have-nots’ that is the issue. Therefore, any solution needs to come from the communities themselves. In addition, with houses in Ballymun going for €300,000-400,000 and unemployment in the area at less that 7 per cent, it is difficult to pin the blame on economic failure.

One idea is that we reinvigorate citizenship.

We re-shape society so that each citizen has a type of contract with the state, whereby rules and responsibilities are set out clearly. The state will deliver such-and-such and, in return, you have to behave in such-and-such a manner.

So maybe welfare is dependent on good behaviour at the lower end, and similarly the benefits that accrue to middle-class people, such as free university education and so on, is dependent on tax compliance. In short, we have a system of contract-based citizenship where each of us has a responsibility in return for rights.

After some time, this contract forms the parameters for what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. If you break this, it is transparent and the penalties known.

If you try to beat a girl to a pulp and film it on your camera, you should have nowhere to hide, your access to the good offices of the state should be indefinitely suspended. Because the contract is well-known and freely signed, the system would work efficiently.

People might say that this would not work, how could it? But we have contracts every day with landlords, banks and insurance companies. We rarely break them. We know the penalties. The thugs who filmed this probably have a contract with O2,Meteor or Eircom. If they do, they know that if they don’t pay, they lose their phone. Simple, so they pay their bills.

The citizenship contract would look the same. At this stage it sounds radical, but so do all interesting ideas at the beginning.

Our system is in need of fixing, so all ideas are welcome.

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