Thursday, 5 July 2012
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to raise the issue of crime in Dublin city centre. Dublin has a reputation as a safe, friendly and welcoming city for visitors, and the city centre has always been a vibrant social hub for residents of suburban Dublin and outlying areas. Unfortunately, Dublin's reputation as a safe city is coming under threat. The threat comes in the form of serious anti-social, criminal behaviour on the streets, and the failure to tackle those issues properly.
The "Your City, Your Voice" survey, carried out by Dublin City Council in 2011, shows that the residents of Dublin are very well disposed to the city, and have a genuine affection for their city. A total of 88% of respondents said that Dublin is a great place to live. However, the survey also revealed some far more worrying statistics. Only 31% said they feel safe in the city centre at night. When asked "What is the worst thing about Dublin?", the single biggest concern, raised by 36% of respondents, was anti-social behaviour, including drink, drugs and crime. There is a genuine concern, which I share, that this is having a serious impact on the image of the city centre. The matter requires urgent attention.
The nature and extent of crime and anti-social behaviour on the streets of the city centre is a major concern. There is a perception that adequate action is not being taken to tackle it. Of particular concern in the city centre is the dealing and use of drugs, which far too often is carried out in the open and without fear of consequences. Along with that we are seeing increased incidents of robberies, violence and unprovoked attacks. Just two weeks ago a man was tragically murdered in an unprovoked attack on Camden Street, and there have been further newspaper reports since of vicious, unprovoked attacks. We have reached a point where the Evening Herald, Dublin's newspaper, can describe the city centre as "Our Streets of Shame". The newspaper's recent study of an afternoon in the life of O'Connell Street paints a bleak picture of violence, drugs, binge drinking and begging. What was outlined is a growing problem, which if not tackled will seriously damage the reputation of our city at home and abroad. It will have a negative impact on the city as a social focus and it will change people's disposition to go into the city centre. Furthermore, it will impact on the economy and on the business life of the city.
It appears as though the dynamic and pattern of anti-social and criminal behaviour in Dublin city centre has changed and intensified recently. It is essential that provision is made for a special period of intense Garda presence and monitoring on the streets of the city centre. Such a period, of perhaps five or six weeks, should be used to categorise and identify the nature and full extent of the problems, including the underlying dynamic, to identify flash-points, and to assess the impact on the city centre overall.
Following on from this period of monitoring, it is essential that we develop a detailed plan of action, which builds on joint policing. The essence of the 2005 Act that established joint policing committees is that tackling anti-social behaviour and crime is not the sole preserve of the Garda and the justice system, rather, it is an issue best tackled in partnership between the Garda, local businesses, publicans, chambers of commerce, taxi drivers and citizens. Everyone who benefits from the economy of the city centre must be accountable and play their part in tackling the problem. They must give some energy towards solving a problem that affects all of us. Joint policing has regrettably not been properly nurtured in this country. Unfortunately, it has withered on the vine, as it were, in Dublin.
I am sorry. The Garda can take the lead, but it cannot be held solely responsible. In other countries, the model of joint policing has been developed in such a way that there are different categories of public order personnel who play their part in ensuring public safety. We need to develop joint policing along those lines for Dublin to tackle this problem. I call on the Minister to ensure that this partnership is formed and fostered. The Garda, the city council and other State agencies must engage with businesses to ensure that a full and detailed strategy can be developed to tackle this ever-growing and worrying problem.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter which is, no doubt, of great concern to him and to all in this House. I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, who regrets that he is unable to be present due to other business.
The Minister shares the shock and revulsion of all law abiding people at the recent reports of senseless acts of violence on Dublin streets. As well as the deep distress caused by such incidents, the Minister is also very conscious of the harm caused by what is sometimes termed as street crime generally and anti-social behaviour as well as the knock-on effect this has on the overall perception of public safety. Despite the understandable public concern over recent incidents, it is important that the good work carried out by An Garda Síochána is recognised. That is reflected in the latest crime figures published by the CSO which show that in the year to 31 March 2012 there was a reduction of more than 8% in assault and related cases and more than 14% in public order offences. Most categories of recorded crime fell in the period.
An Garda Síochána is using the strong legal powers available under the Public Order Acts and the Intoxicating Liquor Acts to keep our streets as safe as possible, including prosecutions where appropriate. The legal provisions deal with street violence and anti-social conduct attributable to excessive drinking and Garda powers include the seizure of alcohol to prevent under age drinking in public places and to forestall public disorder or damage to property. Gardaí may also issue fixed charge notices for the offences of intoxication in a public place and disorderly conduct in a public place. These are a more efficient use of Garda resources and avoid court proceedings when an offender pays the penalty.
While no area of public expenditure can be immune from our economic difficulties, a significant amount of resources are devoted to policing. Deployment of these resources is a matter for the Garda Commissioner based on where experience and analysis show they are most needed. New Garda rostering arrangements have been introduced in recent weeks. As a result, gardaí can be on duty at the times of the day when they are most needed. This is particularly important in dealing with public order issues, as it is generally certain nights of the week and between certain hours that have the greatest need for Garda patrols.
In Dublin and throughout the country, the Garda works closely with communities, local representatives, businesses and other stakeholders to identify and address problems of street crime and anti-social behaviour. The joint policing committees and local policing fora are important mechanisms for this partnership working, but there are many other avenues for this engagement. Under the Garda policing plan for 2012, liaising with those involved in running licensed premises and other parts of the night-time economy is a particular priority for Garda management.
However, dealing with anti-social behaviour is not simply about policing. Much of the violence is fuelled by young people drinking to excess and taking illegal drugs. This problem is not simply a matter of law and order. Rather, it requires action by parents, educators and those who sell alcohol, not only in public houses, but right across the retail sector. The Minister has indicated that, in the coming months, he intends to put in place new regulations to prohibit the below cost selling of alcohol and also alcohol promotions that encourage excessive drinking. He is in regular contact with the Garda authorities about this matter. These contacts will continue. The Minister welcomes the support from all sides of the House for An Garda Síochána's efforts to keep the streets of Dublin and all towns and cities safe.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is important to reiterate that the stakes for Dublin city are high. An unsafe environment is bad for its economy and businesses. Shops, restaurants, pubs and other businesses will suffer if the population does not feel safe on our streets. It will cost jobs. A city with a reputation for crime and anti-social behaviour will turn tourists away. Some 59% of all overseas tourists to Ireland visit Dublin and it is their positive experiences that will encourage the next wave of tourists. This scenario must be maintained.
The recent report by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Andrew Montague, on anti-social behaviour reads: "The long term vibrancy of Dublin city is thus of critical importance for the Irish economy." Protecting this will require initiative, resources, research and concerted action taken in partnership between all stakeholders. In this regard, joint policing has not been properly developed in Dublin or the country. It is a pale imitation of what obtains in other cities. We need to examine how the strategy has evolved. For example, there are up to 25 full-time staff working in the field of joint policing in city hall in Belfast. Dublin city is so much the poorer because there is nothing similar here. I urge the Minister for Justice and Equality to rekindle the concept of joint policing. I would like to see a ministerial report on that work being submitted to the House shortly.
I thank the Deputy. The Minister understands the general public's concerns about violent street crime. He wishes to underline the Government's unwavering commitment to tackling all forms of criminal behaviour on our streets. I understand the Deputy's concern about street crime giving the city or certain parts of it a bad name. Like any town or city, Dublin depends a great deal on tourism. We do not want a view of it as having high levels of crime rippling through the tourism sector, as it would cause the economic difficulties outlined by the Deputy. I assure him that I will raise his concerns with the Minister and that the Garda is aware of criminal activity in Dublin. There is no easy solution.
I will also raise the Deputy's point about joint policing not working like it does in other cities. He compared Dublin with Belfast, where several people are employed by the council to work on joint policing committees with councillors, communities and the police force. The Minister is keeping a close watch on what is occurring in the city, as is the Garda. The Minister receives regular briefings on the city's crime levels.