Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 28 September 2017
Public Accounts Committee
Report on Reopening of Garda Stations: Acting Garda Commissioner
Apologies have been received from Deputy Josepha Madigan. Before we proceed to our normal business we will hear from acting Garda Commissioner, Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin, on a commitment given to the committee at a meeting in July to provide a copy of the interim report on the reopening of certain Garda stations. The committee has still not received the report and is concerned that commitments made to it by any organisation are followed through. While we have received a written explanation from the acting Garda Commissioner we consider this such an important matter that we have invited him at short notice to explain to members in person why he is not in a position to provide the report. I acknowledge the acting Commissioner has new responsibility and we wish him well in his new role. However long or short it will be is not for us to say. We will not deal with the content of the report, but there will be a short period for clarifying issues on the commitment and its background.
I remind members, witnesses and those in the Gallery that all mobile phones should be switched off or put on aeroplane mode.
I advise witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members of the committee are reminded of the provisions of Standing Order 186 that the committee shall refrain from inquiring into the merits of a policy or policies of the Government or a Minister of the Government or the merits of the objectives of such policies. Members are reminded of the long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite the acting Garda Commissioner, Mr. Ó Cualáin, to proceed.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
I recognise that the matter was discussed at a meeting of the committee in July and that I indicated the report could be provided. I made that commitment in good faith at the time. However, as the interim report was prepared for the Minister for Justice and Equality, it is a matter for the Department to approve the release of the document. It was an error on my part and I apologise for it. During the conversation that led to the commitment there was some discussion about the criteria applied and that was where my headspace was during the conversation. I had no issue with the criteria, but when the formal request was received from the committee, it outlined the interim report, and I accept from the transcript of the proceedings that the commitment was made but, as I said, it was made in error.
The members have indicated in the following order: Deputies Catherine Murphy, Shane Cassells, Alan Kelly, Marc MacSharry, Mary Lou McDonald and Catherine Connolly. I ask members to be precise when they put questions on the issue before us.
The context of the request for the report was a discussion at the meeting. I asked the acting Commissioner about the sale of some Garda stations and whether there was proper evaluation because we may need some of the accommodation at some point in the future. I looked for the reason some stations over others found their way onto the Office of Public Works, OPW, list. There is a long list of stations. Once it is decided a station will be sold, it goes to the OPW. The OPW has a list of the stations sold and how much was received for them. Stepaside Garda station never found its way onto that list and there are probably others that did not either. At the time, the acting Garda Commissioner told me there was a difficulty with the increase in the number of personnel and that there would be accommodation issues. The point I made was it does not make sense to sell something if we must buy it back at a point when it will be more expensive. It was in this context we sought the criteria.
I know there were six stations because the reply to a parliamentary question I asked last November stated the Minister requested the Garda Commissioner, while fully cognisant of her statutory functions on the distribution of Garda resources in the State, to identify six stations for reopening on a pilot basis, in line with the commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government. The reply also states the pilot scheme was intended to feed into a wider review of the Policing Authority's work. My understanding is the Garda decides what resources it needs in the context of the funding available. It is valid for us to try to figure out the criteria, and this is what was being asked. We could find ourselves in a situation where stations were sold that should not have been, and how will we know whether that is the case if we do not know the criteria? It was valid to ask this question.
If we do not understand the criteria we can draw only one conclusion. In August, an article written by Juno McEnroe appeared in the Irish Examiner. The article, which is an interview with the Minister of State, Deputy John Halligan, states, "The then-Taoiseach elect told Shane Ross he would help get Stepaside Garda Station reopened, a move which weeks later the alliance’s putative leader announced with much publicity." We just want to know whether the stations are being opened for very good policing reasons, such as crime. It is reasonable for us to know the criteria, and the acting Commissioner must have known what the criteria were that day.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
Yes. We had 700-plus stations at that time. That station closure programme concluded with 139 being closed across the State. Of those 139, I think 60 were sold by the OPW. When we look at the criteria based on the programme for Government commitment to opening six stations on a pilot basis, part of that issue was asking the Policing Authority, in conjunction with the Garda Inspectorate, to look at our district boundaries and how they were drawn with the possibility that this work may inform or in some way help them come to conclusions regarding how we distribute our resources around the State.
I welcome the acting Garda Commissioner and wish him well in his role. It was certainly one of the shortest opening statements we are likely to get in the Committee of Public Accounts. It is hugely regrettable that the acting Garda Commissioner has taken the decision not to honour the commitment to release the report into the reopening of Garda stations. The key point is the fact it will not be done is a blow to transparency, which was already damaged during the hearings we held with members of An Garda Síochána during the first half of this year. That has been played out well enough in the public domain up to this point. Something we should dwell on for a moment is that this will cause huge anger in the rest of the country, particularly rural areas where those 139 stations were closed or scaled down to buzzer boxes, which is, in effect, the same thing. At the same time, they see pictures in the Irish Independentof the smiley head of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport holding up a poster with his local councillor saying he got Stepaside reopened. This is the context to this. The people in my county, be in it Athboy, Oldcastle, Castlepollard or Enfield, will find that very hard to swallow this morning.
The last time Garda management were before us in July with the former Commissioner, a meeting attended by the acting Garda Commissioner, I held up the front page of my local newspaper, the Meath Chronicle. It contained the headline "Out of control" and concerned crime in Meath at the time. Would the acting Garda Commissioner believe that this morning's edition of the Meath Chroniclecontains a headline that screams "Shock rise in Meath crime" regarding crime statistics? The figure is up 59%. Huge parts of my county are under extreme pressure. A huge part of my county and everyone else's county is bereft of the physical presence of the force. I wrote to the acting Garda Commissioner this week because the chief superintendent in my county, Fergus Healy, is doing a fantastic job of trying to thwart the gangs coming from places in Dublin down the motorways and targeting rural areas, but he needs personnel. The ten extra gardaí that are coming in October are simply not enough. The people living in towns and villages in Meath, Tipperary or Sligo where Garda stations are not reopening will feel angry at this morning's proceedings not knowing why their Garda stations remained closed while Stepaside and others are reopened. What would the acting Garda Commissioner say to those people who will read the report or listen to this? I believe the acting Garda Commissioner made that commitment in July in good faith. What has really changed since then not to permit this to come into the public domain?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
The first one was to ensure there was a rural, urban and Dublin dimension to the pilot scheme. Stations were closed throughout the country in all different categories. Having due regard to population and crime trends, limiting the choice of station to those that remained in State ownership, which goes back to a previous point I was going to finish on from the point of view of ensuring it would not be a buy-back of State property, consideration of those stations that could be opened with least delay, and the impact on the delivery of policing services generally of any particular reopening formed the high-level criteria. Of course, very valuable input can be got, which the Deputy acknowledged, from local Garda management and the critical part it would play in respect of calling out what it sees as being the priorities for its areas. That is the piece of work that Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll set about. Some aspects of that were very detailed and needed a lot of work to drill down into trends, especially in crime and population. We had the benefit of a recent census of population which informed his deliberations regarding what was eventually included in the report. It is of use to the entire committee to hear that. This is the position I had in July regarding criteria. I have no problem with sharing the criteria because I know that this was-----
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
There was a conversation around criteria alluded to by Deputy Murphy. That is why I was forthcoming in the context of giving that point. However, there was a commitment then, which I accept, that the full report could be given. Going back to Deputy Cassells' point, it is not in my gift to give it. The report is in the Department and it is for the Department to release it.
It is interesting because the acting Garda Commissioner mentioned the census and populations trends. I am in a county of 200,000 people where crime is up by 59%. I do not have the level of intelligence afforded by the crime reports the acting Garda Commissioner has but I have the very basic statistics that show that the closure of stations and the reduction of personnel are obviously having an impact in this county. I am sure other Deputies could say the same as well.
I genuinely wish the acting Garda Commissioner the best in his role. He has a big weight on his shoulders. It is an opportunity for a new beginning and I hope he takes it. Today is probably the beginning of that process. He mentioned Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll. The acting Garda Commissioner mentioned the six criteria or whatever they are called. When were they given to him?
My understanding is that the selection of the stations for closure was based on three things, namely, an activity analysis of the Garda network, an examination of the impact assessments conducted by local Garda management in respect of stations regarding delivery, and a detailed review of the Garda station network in the Dublin metropolitan region. In an answer to a Topical Issue debate on 13 December 2012 to Deputy Ross about the proposed closure of Stepaside Garda station, it was said that each regional officer was tasked with conducting an impact assessment of the demands placed on each Garda district and station within their region, which sounds plausible. Is it correct to say that the criteria were the same on both occasions?
In fairness to the acting Garda Commissioner, I believe that when he came in here in July he gave us that commitment in good faith. I thought that the two letters that came from the Department and from the acting Garda Commissioner himself, although short, were very revealing. In his letter, the acting Garda Commissioner states that he is aware that the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality had written to the committee indicating that it would be inappropriate for the Department to release the report at this time. The acting Garda Commissioner had presumably had the discussion with the Department about this issue before coming in here and before writing that letter, seeing as he was aware of this.
It is now 28 September 2017. We all know that political statements have been issued and commitments made publicly about the opening of stations. The fact is, however, that the acting Garda Commissioner is saying this morning that no decision has been made by An Garda Síochána to actually do so. That is incredible. That is the first thing I want to say. The second thing concerns the criteria. We have to stick to the reason that we are here today.
To be fair to the acting Garda Commissioner, there is a heavy weight on his shoulders. He was in Templemore last week. This is a new broom and a new beginning and I genuinely wish him the best. I want to know for certain, however, about the process through which the stations were closed. Given that the acting Garda Commissioner has said that the same criteria were used on both occasions, I want to know for certain that the documentation currently exists to reopen those stations, down through all the superintendents and the whole network of the gardaí. I want to know that it exists in the same form as it did in 2012 on 28 September 2017, and that it has existed since we were told of the existence of an interim report.
Could the acting Garda Commissioner answer my question? All I want to know is whether the criteria are the same. The acting Garda Commissioner has read the criteria into the record. We did not know about these criteria, so that was helpful. There are criteria that I am now aware of. We know what was said in a Dáil question some years ago. The acting Garda Commissioner said that the criteria are the same. Ultimately, the documentation and the analysis by various Garda sections has all been put through the system, has all come through an Garda Síochána and exists. There is no question of this being backfilled or of reports being done now. This has to exist. It actually has to have existed from some time ago. I fully accept that the acting Garda Commissioner cannot publish the report, but I want to know that all the documentation in An Garda Síochána relating to those six stations, whichever stations they may be, exists. The acting Garda Commissioner has an opportunity now because this is a new broom. As long as the documentation exists, then everything is fine and justified. I just want to know that it exists.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
I can assure the Deputy that I would not make any recommendations or decisions on the opening of Garda stations without a very full and detailed report on what would justify such an opening. It is not just a question of stations that were closed in the past and are now being reopened. Deputy Cassells mentioned his own county and all the other counties bordering the Dublin metropolitan area. We have to keep this under constant review. There will never be a time when we say that this our estate. We are looking at other locations where there have never been stations but where we now feel, based on current evidence, that it would be justified to open one.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
Let me go back to the criteria that were set and to the work carried out by Assistant Garda Commissioner O'Driscoll. Of the 70-plus stations left for consideration, only four were in the Dublin area. By and large, most of the stations closed were on the western seaboard. As one came closer to the east, the numbers fell. There were only four in the wider Dublin area that could be considered for reopening, on the basis that the buildings were still in State ownership.
I will go to Deputy MacSharry next.
An Garda Síochána was following the process in the programme for Government for reopening Garda stations and had a shortlist of six. Could the acting Garda Commissioner just explain how An Garda Síochána came to the decision to only open one?
The former Garda Commissioner told us here on the last day that she did not have the report but that the witness, the acting Garda Commissioner, did. Was it the acting Garda Commissioner's decision to reopen the station?
We will ask for that. Perhaps Mr. Joseph Nugent or somebody could phone to get the date on which An Garda Síochána made the decision to reopen Stepaside. We would like that done now. Perhaps Mr. Nugent could step outside now to make that phone call, because that date is critical. I now call Deputy MacSharry.
I welcome the acting Garda Commissioner and wish him the very best of luck. Some issues have already been covered by my colleagues. Perhaps we could just recap so that I am crystal clear. We have established that the criteria to close and open stations are the same.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
Deputy Kelly called out three elements there. If one looks into those then the others fall out of them. We were all asked in 2011 by the then Commissioner to look at our estate of stations and to consider which of them could be closed on the basis of the three criteria Deputy Kelly just mentioned.
There is no need. Deputy Kelly has already done so and I am also aware of those three criteria. We do not need to repeat them. The acting Garda Commissioner said that the criteria were absolutely the same. He said that several times. Is that still the case?
The same criteria were used to close Stepaside as to open Stepaside. We have established that Stepaside was the only one of a potential six stations to be reopened; that the criteria were the same; and the decision was based on the interim report. Is that the case?
How then did Stepaside happen to be the one and only station that An Garda Síochána decided to reopen? At this particular juncture, as the acting Garda Commissioner said, there was other work to be completed.
The assistant commissioner had to open one in Dublin and the only one he could open was Stepaside. One of the criteria which Mr. Ó Cualáin seemed to emphasise and I would like to give him the opportunity to say it was the key one, was that it was still in State ownership.
Is it the case, as Deputy Kelly mentioned, that, with a new broom, new opportunity, a clean sheet, while the Department of Justice and Equality in some instances operates in splendid isolation, in this case it has thrown the Garda under the bus, telling it to design criteria and do whatever is necessary to reopen Stepaside because of the political expediency of facilitating members of the Cabinet?
We are concerned because following a commitment from the Garda, the then Commissioner and the witness as acting Garda Commissioner, we were to get the report, then we were not to get it and now we have correspondence – which of course is not Mr. Ó Cualáin's fault – from the Secretary General of the Department saying we may get the report in due course, with plausible deniability built in for the Department when it says it will be with redactions based on policing and security. We are never going to get the report. Was Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll in charge in Dublin at the time that this report was written?
I thank the acting Garda Commissioner for being here. It seems to me the same criteria were used to open as to close. We are still considering which six to open although Stepaside is already agreed in isolation. The acting Commissioner was giving us a report and then he was not. The Secretary General of the Department, which is not the acting Commissioner's fault, is telling us we can have the report but it may have redactions, presumably if some of that information is unworthy of the Committee of Public Accounts or public consumption. I am bound to say and it is not necessarily a reflection on the acting Commissioner that this is totally unacceptable. It is making a mockery of transparency in a public process and sadly it does not augur well, perhaps through no fault of the acting Commissioner's, for the overall image of the Garda in a new era.
-----on a pilot basis. The high level criteria are set within the Department and it corresponds with the acting Commissioner saying this is the commitment we have made, this is a matter of policy, these are the criteria the acting Commissioner is to apply.
Presumably the then Minister for Justice and Equality had oversight of that, which flies in the face of the fact that the current Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is very clear, and I think accurate, in asserting as recently as 20 September that the Garda Commissioner is primarily responsible for those decisions, such as reopening stations. Was the setting of those criteria therefore by the Department not a real intrusion on the authority of the Garda Commissioner of the day?
I am putting a much more straightforward proposition to the acting Commissioner. If there was a need to reopen Garda stations on a pilot basis or any other basis and if the concern was solely policing need, as the acting Commissioner has said, was it not then a gross intrusion for the Department to set criteria that ought to have been set by the Garda? Who set the criteria for closing the stations?
The acting Commissioner does not know who set the criteria for closing the stations but we know that the criteria for opening them were set by the Department and the Minister, therefore by the political system rather than by any Garda need.
Is Mr. Ó Cualáin saying therefore that Stepaside was more urgent and more in need of attention than any other station of the 70 that he stated? Is he saying that the criteria and the analysis screamed out "reopen Stepaside" and is still mute on the other stations?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
No. As I think I explained in response to the previous question the reason there was so much information available on Stepaside is that it was one of four stations that had been considered by the Deputy Commissioner in charge of the DMR. His colleagues throughout the country had a far bigger number to consider in the context------
Does the acting Commissioner have the documentation? I am picking Rush because there was considerable outcry in north Dublin and acting Commissioner is focusing his remarks on Dublin. Is he prepared to say here that having the documentation and having applied the high level criteria that Stepaside was an obvious priority as against Rush or any other stations?
Go raibh míle maith agat. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an tUasal Ó Cualáin as a ról nua. Go n-éirí leis. Níl sé éasca.
I realise there is a boundary, that the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality also has a very important role in this and that the matters will be discussed in detail. Our remit is because the acting Garda Commissioner came before us and said he would give a report. That has been looked at, he made a mistake and has apologised and said he should not have. I am not going to go on about that, I accept his apology.
I am concerned at how the report was not given to us after the acting Commissioner left here. He had said in good faith that he was going to give it to us.
I only have five minutes so I want to ask very specific questions. Mr. Ó Cualáin waited, in due course, which is the normal procedure for a letter to come to clarify the outstanding pieces of correspondence.
The Government, in its wisdom, acted on that interim report in respect of the Stepaside Garda station - which I will leave to the Committee on Justice and Equality to look after. This interim report went forward not finalised and the Government acted on it with regard to the Stepaside Garda station. It is still an interim report that is being worked on and is to come back to An Garda Síochána for further comments.
A decision was taken, out of the hands of An Garda Síochána. Is Mr. Ó Cualáin standing by the decision in relation to the Stepaside Garda station and that it was a strong recommendation from the interim report?
Again, I am very conscious that the justice committee would look at the detail, but this committee is about the value for money aspect. A colleague made a very good point this morning during the private session with regard to value for money and the selling off. I might come back to that.
On the process, I understand that the acting Garda Commissioner's word was given and has apologised and we go forward. The Government, however, has acted on a draft report, which is a work in progress, and it picked one station out while Assistant Commissioner John O'Driscoll is still working on the report.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
Given the size and significance of the work it was important, especially in the context of the piece of work that was happening with the Garda Síochána Inspectorate and the Policing Authority, that we would let them know how we were progressing. There was a lot of analysis to be done along the criteria we have outlined and in getting the views of local management. That took time.
In the interests of openness, if the Government makes a decision in relation to one Garda station based on a draft report, which is a work in progress, would it not be prudent that this would be put before the relevant committees? If the Government is acting on the report would it be good procedure in accountability?
Can I come in on that because it is part of the criteria? I got a reply to a parliamentary question in July and there was 42 stations sold. There are 159 closed, and none of them are in Dublin.
Would anyone have actually contacted Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll, be it a senior official in the Department or anyone on the behest of a Cabinet Member, to extract the Stepaside Garda station away from the others to give it this prominence? I think that people are finding it hard to put this in their head as to why that station was picked out and why an interim draft report would not be allowed to go in its totality and fullness without having this station extracted.
I thank the witness for his time and I wish the acting Garda Commissioner the very best in his role. I know it is a very difficult task. Obviously, as he is entering the programme of renewal within An Garda Síochána, it is very important for this committee that An Garda Síochána's actions are seen to be transparent and that it is seen to have robust practices. The responses here today leave a lot to be desired. Is the decision on the opening of any Garda station a reserve function for An Garda Síochána?
Irrespective of the budget; whatever budget to give to the Garda Commissioner of the day comes down to the Department. The decision, however, is critical and I want no ambiguity around this. The decision to open a Garda station is a reserve function.
Given the basis of how that the decision was made in isolation - and we must think of the world we live in - this leaves the acting Garda Commissioner and An Garda Síochána open to accusations. In order to have the force above any accusations of transparency and public scrutiny, does Mr. Ó Cualáin believe it was a good idea to isolate the Stepaside Garda station? When one considers the political realities that were around it and considering the way the force at that time was being inundated with various reports from different organisations, is the witness satisfied that it was a good idea to do that?
Would it have been more prudent and better practice, to give it time, to announce all the stations together? If it was going to open two, three or four stations would it not have been more prudent for An Garda Síochána to say it would open them all when it was in possession of all the information, all the facts and when the reports were finalised?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
In a practical way there are many implications arising out of any decision and if six stations were to be recommended together then we would have to go back to the OPW and get its co-operation and input around re-opening a station that was closed. It is not just as simple as turning the key in the door. There are many other considerations, such as building regulations and so on, once a station is decommissioned and one then goes to reopen it and, therefore, a staggered approach is probably more prudent.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
It has to be considered in the context of a very ambitious programme of reform under which lots of money has been committed to our capital programme involving new stations around the country and the refurbishment of stations. It is not a bottomless pit and we must be prudent in how we approach it.
The critical thing I want to be comfortable with as a member of this committee is whether the witness, as acting Garda Commissioner, is of the view that the Garda Síochána should not have done anything differently with regard to this opening. The witness cannot see the concerns that exist. He has said the Garda went through a process and made a decision based on an interim report to open that station on its own. In terms of the leadership role he now has in the Garda Síochána, he now has a chance to break away and acknowledge things that should have been done better. Is he happy with that decision and how it was made?
I appreciate that but the witness must be acutely aware of sensitive decisions. To isolate one station for reopening based on an interim report is probably not best practice. People like to have possession of all information before a decision is made. That is basic good practice in any organisation. That these decisions are being made is a cause for great concern. I spoke to my colleague, Senator Neale Richmond, on this issue during the week and he is concerned about whether there are sufficient gardaí to staff that station and reopen it.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
To revert to the criteria, that is one issue about which local Garda management must be very happy. If everything else is there, all things being equal, the question of whether there are sufficient gardaí to staff the station was part of the criteria local management had to apply when it came back with its recommendation.
Tuesday, 13 June was the date placards announcing the reopening appeared outside Leinster House before the Cabinet meeting. That is not Mr. Ó Cualáin's affair and the committee accepts that is politics. To get the sequence right-----
As Deputy Burke established and the Chairman has confirmed, it is a reserved function for the Garda Síochána to make that decision, which brings us back to the point I made earlier that the political system - in this case the Cabinet or members thereof - intruded on a decision that rightfully should have been taken by the Garda. The Garda is the body to set criteria and decide which Garda station should be reopened and on what basis. The Chairman has confirmed that this was a political decision.
We, as politicians, will deal with that on a political level. Did the report produced by the Garda Síochána that went to the Department of Justice and Equality on 9 June and then to the Government recommend more than one early reopening?
If the then Commissioner had the authority and it was her reserved function, why did she not proceed with reopening the stations that were so recommended? Has the process to reopen any other station commenced?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
Yes. I consider it prudent at this juncture to await the final report because other stations could be considered and one of the criteria is the impact on policing in a given area and that may change. It is, therefore, important that we get the full picture of, for example, places contiguous to the Dublin metropolitan area.
I asked on what date the Commissioner made that decision. A report was sent to the Department of Justice and Equality on 9 June. A Minister made an announcement on 13 June. On what date did the Commissioner decide to reopen that station?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
I have no experience of that. I cannot recall any station recently being opened from scratch. We were closing stations. It would be a considerable period. If the building was already in existence and had at some stage been an operational Garda station, that does not necessarily mean it is in turnkey condition. Lots of remedial work might need to be carried out to bring the building up to current building regulation standards.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
The delay is due to the onerous work that had to be carried out locally by assistant commissioners in regions where there were a considerable number of stations to be looked at in the context of justifying on a policing basis that the stations needed to be reopened. That is where the majority of the work took place.
They would have required many analysts who had to do a great deal of data gathering in the context of the census, crime reports and so forth, and how those have changed over the years.
Was he tasked solely with considering existing stations that had been closed or was he given the opportunity to assess communities on the basis of where a station was required, rather than where they were previously located?
I wish the acting Garda Commissioner the best. He faces an onerous task in that capacity. On political interference, the witness said the Garda is autonomous in making the decision on where and when the stations are opened. It seems strange in our political situation that a Minister wanted the Stepaside station reopened in his constituency and it was the one that was picked. We are all from different areas of the country and we all wanted stations reopened yet it was this one that was picked, as several members have mentioned. It appears to the public that there was a politically motivated reason for reopening it rather than the reasons the witness has given here today. Will he comment on that? I accept that the Garda is autonomous and that politicians are not supposed to interfere but to Members of the Dáil it appeared that Stepaside station being reopened was politically motivated, with no other station considered at the time.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
The only comment I can make is that this piece of work began as a result of an initiative outlined in the programme for Government. That is the basis on which we carried out our work and that is the basis on which I will make any decisions - purely on policing requirements and nothing else.
I have another question. I am from the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency. Many stations were closed in Kilkenny and some were sold. Where stations were closed there is talk about getting gardaí back to them. Two gardaí were appointed just last week, one for my parish of Ballyhale and another for Stoneyford. If a station has been sold and a garda is appointed to that parish, how does the Garda handle that? Is the Garda trying to get rented accommodation or does it just work from the main stations?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
Once it is closed, it is no longer part of the Garda estate. It goes back into the ownership of the Office of Public Works. Once a Garda station is off our books the policing arrangements for that area would go to some other sub-district or district headquarters. That is where the people would be allocated.
We have established the criteria, which is fine. The witness verified, following my question, that a process is being followed. There is documentation that is all date stamped. It will not be recreated but is all there. Obviously, it came through the process to the Commissioner and the decision was made. I presume that in the case of Dublin the Assistant Garda Commissioner, Pat Leahy, was fully consulted on this issue. Given gangland crime and the like, I would have presumed that Fitzgibbon Street would have been a bigger priority than leafy Stepaside. That said, if that is the decision based on the data that was given and which came through the process all the way up through the Assistant Garda Commissioners, that is fine. I presume all of these people were consulted and agreed to this process and the decision that was made.
All I wish to do is verify that it came all the way through the process and through all the people. The witness is basically saying it was from the ground up. It is good to know it is the local gardaí. It came up through all the ranks to Assistant Garda Commissioner Leahy and further.
That is fine. I seek a last clarification. The witness said earlier to Deputy Bourke - Chairman, this needs another date - that there was an interim interim report. Can we get the date of the interim interim report so we can follow this through? On 9 July, the report was sent to the Department. On 13 July, there was a big mass of bunting out in Stepaside.
Sorry, it was June. There was the big mass of bunting when the Government announced this single station. On what date was the interim report concluded and when was it submitted to the Government? Mr. Nugent might wish to make a second telephone call, but that information is critical.
I am just trying to establish the facts. The acting Garda Commissioner is confirming that the interim report that recommended the reopening of Stepaside Garda station also recommended the reopening of Rush Garda station.
May I comment on it? I think it is a disgrace that political cherry-picking of Garda decisions happens. I asked the acting Garda Commissioner earlier about the setting of the high-level criteria and he confirmed that they were equally politically set by the Department. I also asked him earlier about the criteria for closing the stations down and who set those criteria and he could not answer me. I would be most appreciative if he would furnish that information to the committee after this meeting.
I have a number of very quick questions. The first concerns a reply I received in November of last year to a parliamentary question and follows on from the point that has been made. The reply states, "As the Deputy will appreciate, the Garda Commissioner is primarily responsible for the distribution of Garda resources in the State and, as Minister, I have no direct role in the matter." It is very clear from what Mr. Ó Cualáin has said that the Minister had a very direct role in the matter because there was a direct choice to be made and that direct choice was made about one station. It was, therefore, not the Garda that selected Stepaside; it was either the Government or the Minister. That seems to be very clear from what he has said.
The second point is that some stations have found their way onto a sales list. Of the 159 stations closed, 42 have been sold. That makes 117 that have not been sold, and they are well distributed. There are 16 in Leinster and nine in Connacht, despite the fact that Mr. Ó Cualáin said most of them were on the western seaboard and do on. Stepaside does not appear to have been put on a list for sale. Does the Garda have a role with the OPW in terms of future-proofing these needs? Does it have a role with the OPW in saying, "Do not sell that. This is cropping up from the information we are gathering from our districts. If we are future-proofing our needs, we will need to hold onto that."? Is that part of the dialogue? Does that happen between the Department of Justice and Equality and the OPW, or between whom does it happen? We could very easily sell off stations and then have to buy or rent others in their place. That is where I feel the Committee of Public Accounts has a very strong role.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
With regard to the sale of stations, as I said, once a station has been decommissioned or is no longer in use as a Garda station, it is very much up to the OPW to decide what to do with it. However, once the programme for Government made clear that the Government wanted six stations opened on a pilot basis, our initial action would have been to ask the OPW not to put any of the remaining estate up for sale until such time as this particular exercise had been completed.
My question has already been answered. It arose during questions I asked. Mr. Nugent referred to a previous interim report. That is what happened. He has clarified that there was not a previous interim report-----
When I asked Mr. Ó Cualáin whether additional stations were considered, I was clearly referring to stations over and above those six. He said there were four, which means ten stations were under consideration.
However, part of the consideration was that the building happened to be in State ownership, as opposed to there being a policing requirement. Does ownership come into the Assistant Garda Commissioner's work-----
We will take that for granted. I am just asking whether it is the job of the Assistant Garda Commissioner to present a business case from a financial perspective or from a policing perspective, or is it both?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
He or she would have to present the business case on a policing basis for the six stations that are being sought, but there would be a far bigger piece of work to be done in the context of the other new stations because it would involve the possible acquisition of property-----
I will ask the question again and be a bit more precise. Does the financial aspect of the location of a station, whether rebuild or new build, as well as the financial implication for the State, form part of the Assistant Garda Commissioner's consideration?
That is acceptable. That makes sense. My question is whether the financial aspect is part of the criteria. Other than the six stations that were clearly in State ownership - otherwise they would not have been considered in the first place - and-or new builds based upon a policing model which clearly makes sense, my question is whether Assistant Garda Commissioner O'Driscoll had a condition in the report whereby he had to consider the financial implications for the Garda Vote, as opposed to policing, or pit it against-----
Can Mr. Ó Cualáin clarify one last question for me? He said it is ultimately a matter for the Garda Commissioner to make a decision regarding the reopening of a Garda station. The Garda has proceeded and commenced the process with the OPW for consideration of Stepaside. There were a number of other stations on the list that the Garda sent to the Department of Justice and Equality on 9 June. Why has the Garda not proceeded with the list it sent to the Department of Justice and Equality, and why has the Garda proceeded with only one today? Has it proceeded or commenced with the others? If not, why not?
Regarding those others, the six that are on that list that the Garda sent to the Department of Justice and Equality, the Garda has actually made some initial moves regarding all of them. In the first instance, the Garda has told the OPW: "Please, do not sell those. We are looking at those for reopening."
I have a final question for both witnesses so I do not mind who answers it.
In terms of the timing, it was mentioned earlier that with regard to Stepaside there was already a process under way. Mr. Nugent has been in contact with the OPW to advance that as quickly as possible. In terms of the timeframe following that, is it fair to say that it has taken precedence over the capital investment in Garda stations which, for example, have been partly or fully condemned but which are still operational? I refer, for example, to stations where cells cannot be used. In Sligo Garda station, for example, cells cannot be used and people are being sent to Ballymote, 15 miles away. In terms of the procurement of a site and the construction of a station, with the current one clearly being not fit for purpose, in the order of priority is Stepaside higher on the list? Did Mr. Ó Cualáin decide that it ought to be higher up on the list? How was the timeframe determined or, conversely, is that being influenced by a higher power in the Department or politics?
Mr. Joseph Nugent:
Discussions are ongoing. We met, for example, with the OPW this week to talk through the entire building refurbishment programme, including the status of the station in Sligo. It is not an issue of priority, rather it is an issue of the full programme and the capital decisions that will be made in the budget around capital availability for us. We will take all of those into the mix and will talk to the OPW about those. It is about the OPW's capacity, from a financial and timing point of view, to respond. What I am trying to get at is that there is a range of considerations that go beyond-----
I ask the acting Garda Commissioner, from an operational - cops and robbers - perspective, what would be more of a priority? Would it be operating the cells at a regional centre like Sligo Garda station or re-opening the station at Stepaside, in terms of timing and priority, if the acting Garda Commissioner had a magic wand?
It seems to be one or the other. Do we want operating cells in the north west region or do we want to open Stepaside more quickly? If it was a ying, yang question of one or the other, what would make the best sense?
I have a question for Mr. Nugent about what he said about wider consultation. As a committee, we accept that there must be wider consultation in relation to resources, but can we presume that the head of human resource management is fully consulted in all of these decisions?
Mr. Nugent is the chief administrative officer, CAO, and I presume, in terms of line management, he reports to the acting Garda Commissioner. I presume that the head of human resources, HR, was also consulted because there is no point in reopening Garda stations if one does have staff. I presume that in the preparation of the interim reports and through all of this, the head of HR was fully consulted. I presume the question of whether An Garda Síochána could resource this was asked, for example.
I ask the acting Garda Commissioner if he will ask the head of HR to confirm to this committee that, in relation to both interim reports, the head of HR was fully consulted and will make a statement to that effect.
We will ask that a note be sent back to the committee on that issue. At this stage, I thank the acting Garda Commissioner and Mr. Nugent for their presence today.
Before we suspend, I seek agreement from members that we will go straight on to HIQA now and will defer dealing with our correspondence and other routine matters until the afternoon. Representatives from HIQA have been waiting outside for some time. Is that agreed? Agreed.