Tuesday, 7 February 2006
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important and serious matter.
It is not alarmist to state that Lifford has fallen victim to a crime wave. In recent weeks, there has been a spate of criminality, most notably a succession of fires of a suspicious nature, with property damage estimated at more than €1 million and six houses burned out. On top of these arson attacks, criminal incidents have included the desecration of a graveyard, a number of armed robberies, cars burned out, a shooting, a stabbing and a litany of incidents of anti-social behaviour.
It is quite clear that the crime problem in the area has escalated in recent times and the mostly law-abiding local residents must be fearful for their safety. Because Lifford is a Border town, some of the incidents are cross-Border intrusions and the criminals perpetrate their attacks and simply retreat back across the Border. As Lifford Garda station does not operate on a 24-hour basis, these criminals believe they can operate with impunity. The answer is obviously an increase in Garda numbers to tackle this very worrying growth in criminal activity.
The present total Garda strength in Lifford is approximately 12 to 13 personnel. Not alone must they cover the Lifford station area but they must also give cover to the sub-station areas of Castlefinn, Raphoe and Carrigans. These stations are only open a limited number of hours daily. This means that outside the hours of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Lifford station is more often closed than open. Such a situation creates a vacuum which certain people are only too willing to exploit.
Until recently, Lifford Garda station had a complement of upwards of 50 gardaí and this was as a result of the security situation across the bridge in Northern Ireland. Very few towns in County Donegal or indeed in Ireland, had a more visible Garda presence than Lifford. Since the cessation of paramilitary operations in Northern Ireland, Lifford Garda station has been drastically downgraded to its present strength. There are so few gardaí on duty with such a huge area to cover that there is a virtual breakdown of communications between the local population and the Garda authorities. What is the point in going to the Garda station to report a crime when there is no one there to whom to report it?
The criminal incidents in Lifford in recent times are not of a minor nature, being in the first category of violent crime. Arson is a serious crime because not alone is property destroyed, there can also be loss of innocent lives. The same goes for armed robbery. The people in Lifford feel isolated, vulnerable and exposed to these attacks.
There have been incidents of desecration of holy places, personal attacks with the intent of injuring or maiming, the burning of cars, shootings, stabbings and other anti-social behaviour that cannot and should not be tolerated. The majority of the population of Lifford abhor and condemn these acts. Condemnation is one thing but prevention is another. Garda numbers in Lifford Garda station must be increased to a strength where the station can be open on a 24-hour basis. There can be no short cuts.
I appeal to the Minister, the Government and the Garda authorities to address this escalating crime situation before it gets out of hand. Prevention is better than cure. This matter must be addressed urgently. The business community in Lifford feels vulnerable and unprotected. No one can predict when the next armed hold-up will take place. So far it is fortunate there has been no loss of life but where firearms are used, anything can happen. It is better to act now than to wait until it is too late.
Lifford is a good town with good people. It is the administrative capital of County Donegal and it is an historic town. We are proud of its architectural and administrative heritage. We owe it to the residents of the town and its hinterland to end this spate of criminality before it gets completely out of hand. I appeal to the Minister, the Minister of State and the Government to address this problem and to ensure the Garda station in Lifford has the personnel to provide a 24-hour presence so criminality can be addressed before it gets out of hand.
I thank Deputy McGinley for raising this matter. I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who unfortunately is unable to be present. I assure the Deputy the Minister and I share his concerns about recent incidents in Lifford.
Before commenting on the particular matter identified by the Deputy, it would be helpful to put the issue of crime into perspective. The level of headline crime in 2005 is lower than that for 2003 by 1.6% and for 2002 by 4.4%. Furthermore, in 1995, with a population of almost 3.6 million people, there were 29 crimes per 1,000 of the population, while in 2005, with a population of over 4.1 million, there were 24.6 crimes per 1,000 of the population.
It is also important to put on the record that headline crime for the Lifford area in 2005 was actually 12% lower than in 2004. However, the Minister has expressed his disappointment that there was an overall increase of 2.78% in headline crime in 2005 and he does not play down his concerns in that regard. The Minister is giving the highest priority to providing the resources to the Garda Síochána to tackle crime. He takes great satisfaction in the Government's decision of October 2004 to approve the recruitment of 2,000 additional gardaí to increase the strength of the force to 14,000. As a result, there will be a combined organisational strength of both attested gardaí and recruits in training of 14,000 by the end of this year.
The Minister has repeatedly promised that the additional gardaí will not be put on administrative duties but will be put directly into frontline, operational, high-visibility policing. The Minister is also pleased that the Garda Síochána is now better resourced than at any time in its history. The funding for the Garda, which the Minister secured in the Estimates for 2006, is at a historic high of over €1.29 billion, compared to just €600 million in 1997. The provision for Garda overtime in 2006 will be €83.5 million, an increase of €23 million on the allocation for last year. This increase will greatly aid the planned deployment of a visible policing service in a flexible, effective and targeted response to criminal activity and in crime prevention generally. The €83.5 million in overtime will yield 2.725 million extra hours of policing by uniformed and special units throughout the State.
The first incremental increase of newly attested gardaí due to the programme of accelerated recruitment into the Garda Síochána will take place next month. During the allocation of the newly attested personnel, the needs of the Donegal division will be fully considered within the overall context of the needs of Garda divisions throughout the country. Strong provisions are already in place to combat anti-social and unlawful behaviour. The primary basis for the law regarding public order offences is the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994, which modernised the law in this regard.
Because of the Minister's concerns about the abuse of alcohol and its contribution to public order offending and broader social problems, he has brought forward tough new provisions in the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003 to deal with alcohol abuse and its effect on public order. Furthermore, the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 2003 provides the Garda Síochána with additional powers to deal with late night street violence and anti-social conduct attributable to excessive drinking.
The Minister has recently published the general scheme of the intoxicating liquor Bill 2005. The main purpose of the proposed Bill is to streamline and modernise our liquor licensing laws and it will also contain provisions which will combat anti-social behaviour.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Minister recently published his legislative proposals to deal with anti-social behaviour, including provision for anti-social behaviour orders. The Minister proposes to introduce these proposals by way of Committee Stage amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, which is currently before the House.
The Minister attaches great importance to the development of a real partnership between the Garda Síochána and local authorities on matters affecting policing. His intention and that of the Oireachtas, as set out in the Garda Síochána Act 2005, is that joint policing committees and local policing fora established under them will provide arenas where the Garda Síochána and local authorities can work together to address local policing and other issues.
Before addressing the particular issues raised by the Deputy, it is important to re-state that headline crime in Lifford fell by 12% in 2005 compared to 2004. The Minister has been informed by the Garda authorities that the incidents raised by the Deputy are currently under investigation by an investigation team compromising members of detective branch and uniform members under the direction of the district officer at Letterkenny. An incident room has been set up in Letterkenny Garda station to co-ordinate the investigation of these incidents.
The Minister is assured that all available resources are being deployed in the Lifford area to respond to the current policing demands and with a view to ensuring a concentrated and visible Garda presence in the area, with additional patrols being performed by uniformed officers, detective branch and the traffic corps. Members of the Garda Síochána patrol the area on a 24-hour basis.