Tuesday, 5 November 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Garda Divisional Headquarters
I acknowledge the presence of the Minister. As he is aware, I raised this matter before and there was no Minister or Minister or State available to take it. I appreciate the advice of the Ceann Comhairle and the Department contacted me to apologise for the fact that no Minister or Minister of State was available, although a Minister of State came to the Chamber immediately afterwards.
A Minister of State was outside the door who then came into the Chamber. It was not the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, but a Minister of State at the Department. The Ceann Comhairle acknowledged that fact to me in writing. Perhaps the Ceann Comhairle could allow me some latitude as I have lost a minute with the Minister's intervention.
No Minister was available at the time. It is customary for a Minister or Minister of State from the Department to answer the debate rather than a Minister or Minister of State with no responsibility for the area.
I am not saying anything about that but there are other Ministers of State in the Department.
The new divisional headquarters location for the Tipperary and Clare Garda division makes no sense. The local perception is of bewilderment and the decision has sapped morale. I respect the idea that the Garda Síochána must change and I even welcome that change. My county has access to two of the longest motorways in Ireland and it touches six other counties. It is central to much of the transport in Ireland.
The idea that the headquarters for the divisional area would be in Ennis is frankly insane. The proposal is even more bizarre than that. The Tipperary and Clare division does not make sense. We will have a divisional headquarters in Ennis sandwiched between Garda divisions in Limerick and Galway, meaning there will be three headquarters along the west coast and none in Tipperary. This does not make sense for members of An Garda Síochána. No one can tell me that the gardaí who will deal with the headquarters in Ennis will not have to start travelling to the town. Gardaí from Tipperary will have to travel through another division in Limerick to reach their divisional headquarters in Ennis. As someone who lives right beside the Ballina-Killaloe bridge, the Minister can trust me when I say it would be quicker to go through Limerick. That is why we need a new bridge.
The decision-making process was based on five criteria, namely, population, level of crime, workload, projected growth of the area and geography. With the greatest of respect to my good friends in County Clare, Tipperary is miles ahead of Clare on all five of these criteria.
We met the Garda Commissioner last Friday and I respect his decision to attend a meeting of the joint policing committee in Tipperary. He acknowledged after questioning that there may have been other reasons. If the criteria point to one decision but another decision is made, it shows a lack of transparency. This results in innuendo and other commentary, which I neither welcome nor want to hear. The metrics do not add up for this decision.
In fairness, I lost a minute so I ask for a little latitude.
There is also a lack of consultation. The Garda Representative Association in the county has made valid points about the lack of resources in Tipperary. The Garda Commissioner was unable to tell us how many extra gardaí would result from this changeover. I asked the Commissioner a question the other day but he did not answer it. He stated that a number of divisions would be opened first, which I respect, after which the process would be analysed and audited and the findings and learnings would be considered. All I am asking for is a review of this decision-making process after several years to see whether it is working or justifiable. That is a reasonable request. Auditing is good. This decision is obviously wrong because all the metrics show it is wrong. I am asking the Minister to put forward that request.
If I am in the Seanad, I cannot be here. A message was sent to Deputy Kelly's office and, as far as I understand, the Office of the Ceann Comhairle.
The origin of the new model lies in a detailed analysis of these issues by the Garda Síochána Inspectorate. I remind the House that the inspectorate is an independent body comprised of experienced and distinguished policing professionals. It is tasked with ensuring that the resources available to An Garda Síochána are used to achieve and maintain the highest levels of efficiency and effectiveness in the operation of its functions with reference to the best standards of comparable police services. The recommendation of the inspectorate on how An Garda Síochána is structured is in line with this remit and will ensure maximum policing impact on the ground in County Tipperary. The recommendations were strongly endorsed by the independent Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. The commission was made up of policing experts, experts from the private sector and academics - people with experience of policing.
I remind the House that the announcement of the new model by the Garda Commissioner was welcomed by the Policing Authority and other key stakeholders. I emphasise that this new model will bring positive impacts throughout the State and in Tipperary. First and foremost, it will mean more gardaí, including sergeants and inspectors, on the front line. It will reduce bureaucracy within the Garda organisation and empower divisions to take decisions at local level in counties Tipperary and Clare. It will create divisions of sufficient scale to ensure operational independence. Every division will have specialists in critical areas, including domestic and sexual crime, economic crime and so on. In short, the new model will bring significant improvements to An Garda Síochána structures, processes and services in Tipperary and Clare, maximising the organisation's operational impact at the local level in both counties to deliver an improved more consistent and highly visible policing service in communities across Tipperary and Clare. The new division in Tipperary and Clare, like all others, will have between 600 and 800 Garda members. It will have a Garda inspector available on a 24-7 basis and expertise in cybercrime and protective services, which deal with domestic and sexual violence, as well as a major focus on community engagement across counties Tipperary and Clare.
I have previously highlighted that in the current model several divisions cover two counties, including the division in my constituency. There is no evidence that the location of a divisional headquarters outside a county boundary diminishes policing services in any respect. I have been a Deputy representing Laois-Offaly for a long time. I have never once heard it put to me that because the headquarters is in Portlaoise policing in Tullamore has suffered.
It is important that we continue to acknowledge the reasoning and rationale behind this system. The idea is to improve services at local level. The new model will shift power and decision-making from Garda headquarters in Dublin to chief superintendents and superintendents nationwide, including in Tipperary and Clare. This will bring these senior members of the Garda service closer to the communities they serve in Tipperary and Clare, ensuring a more localised and responsive policing service that will reflect the local needs of the people in the division. It is not the case that under the new model, policing services will be centralised at divisional headquarters.
I welcome the Commissioner's confirmation that as many superintendents as possible will be in key locations throughout the division, including in Thurles in County Tipperary. This has been achieved in the divisions that piloted the model. The location of the divisional headquarters is simply an administrative matter and will not impact in an adverse or negative way on policing in the new division. The increased Garda numbers in Tipperary bear witness to the commitment to delivering the best possible police service in the county. Garda numbers in Tipperary have increased from a total of 354 at the end of 2015 to 384 this year. At the same time, the number of Garda civilian staff in the division has almost doubled from 32 at the end of 2015 to a total of 61 today. This is a considerable increase in civilian staff and means that additional gardaí can be redeployed from administrative to operational policing duties where their training and policing expertise can be used to best effect.
I believe in modernisation of An Garda Síochána. I also believe that we need to see considerable change. I am not one of those who come to the Chamber to practise NIMBYism, as my track record will show. I do not believe in political policing. I believe in transparency in decision-making. Where a decision such as this is made and it is not transparent across the criteria, it has to be questioned. That is what this Chamber is for. I listed the criteria and I challenge anyone to say that, when applied, these criteria place Ennis in County Clare above Thurles in County Tipperary.
The Minister made a statement about his time as a Deputy which is frankly not relevant. He said that locating the Laois-Offaly divisional headquarters in Portlaoise rather than Tullamore made no difference. There is some difference between the distance from Tullamore to Portlaoise and the distance from Carrick-On-Suir to Ennistymon. The former is approximately 36 km while the latter approximately 180 km. The point is the scale and size. We have divisional headquarters in Limerick and Galway, and rightly so given the scale of the cities and areas they cover. We then have another headquarters on the west coast in Ennis. The largest inland county, Tipperary, has a major issue with crime owing to the length of motorway there. The decision is bizarre given that Tipperary places higher than Clare under all of the criteria.
Is it any wonder that the gardaí to whom I have spoken at all levels are so disheartened by this decision? That is a fact. If the Minister listens to the GRA and to other garda representative bodies, they will tell him this.
It is good practice to review decisions. While I do not agree with what has been done here, I am not asking for it to be changed now. However, I want to know when the Department first became aware of this decision and whether there was any other iteration of it beforehand. Will the Minister ensure that, given the Garda Commissioner's statements, after a number of years all of this will be audited to see if this is the optimal way to organise Garda divisions?
I acknowledge the entitlement of Deputy Kelly or any other Deputy to raise questions. Indeed, it is an obligation on the Deputy's part. I am very pleased that the Commissioner has responded to an invitation to attend a meeting in Tipperary in order to answer questions. In this regard, the Commissioner recently met members of the Tipperary joint policing committee. I understand that he addressed the issues raised by Teachtaí Dála and local representatives directly on the new model. Garda Commissioner Harris and his senior team have indicated that they are willing to meet with joint policing committees all over Ireland and accept submissions. This engagement is important and I urge all interested parties to avail of the opportunity to engage.
At the heart of the concerns raised by Deputy Kelly is the relationship between communities and their local gardaí, as well as the garda resources required in each division to provide an effective policing service. An Garda Síochána is a growing organisation. Since the reopening of the Garda College in Templemore in County Tipperary, closed under a previous Administration, approximately 2,800 new gardaí have attested and have been assigned to mainstream policing duties around the country. A further 200 gardaí are due to attest before the end of the year. At the same time, the record level of recruitment of Garda civilian staff is allowing for the redeployment of gardaí to operational policing duties in Counties Tipperary and Clare. As a result, there are significantly more gardaí working to protect communities from harm. Under this new model we will see more sergeants and inspectors at the coalface in Tipperary and Clare. We will see less duplication and bureaucracy at superintendent and chief superintendent level. There will be greater specialisation in Tipperary and Clare, with expertise available locally to address the new types of crime and to engineer the responses required of An Garda Síochána to legislation passed in these Houses on an ongoing basis.
This new model will deliver on some of the key recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. Gardaí should be visible in Tipperary and Clare, on the front line, engaged in community policing. I am confident that the roll-out of the new model will strengthen and facilitate community engagement and provide an improved policing service to communities in Tipperary, Clare and elsewhere.