Tuesday, 22 June 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
An Garda Síochána
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this very important issue. I fully appreciate that Garda resources are a matter for the Garda Commissioner but people in east Meath are rightly very distressed and concerned. It is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. The Garda station was built 20 years ago to meet the needs of a population one quarter the size of the current population. The one thing all electoral areas in County Meath such as Trim, Kells, Ashbourne, Navan and Ratoath have in common is they all have a full-time, 24-7 Garda station and a Garda superintendent. East Meath, including Laytown and Bettystown, has a population of 34,000 and that will increase by approximately 10,000 in the coming years but it does not have those services and it needs them urgently.
The Garda Commissioner is aware of this issue and he is listening to us. He met local representatives at the joint policing committee on 6 March 2020, and he was aware of the boundary issue between Meath and Louth in terms of ensuring there could be hot pursuit of criminals from east Meath into Drogheda and vice versa, if needed. The problem is parents are very upset as children were assaulted there recently. A couple of Sundays ago, the Garda dog unit and the Garda mounted support unit were needed in the area to ensure peace would prevail and thugs and people out of their heads on drink and drugs would not be able to dominate social life over a very important weekend.
Residents who live in one part of estates in Drogheda such as Rosevale and Beaubec ring Ashbourne Garda station, 25 miles away, while those who live in the other part of the estates ring Drogheda Garda station. That is not good enough and it is not acceptable. The Minister for Justice is aware of the issue and I have discussed it with her and the Department, but it is up to the Garda Commissioner, who has listened to us in Drogheda before, to deal with it. He assigned additional gardaí to the area following the appalling murder of Keane Mulready-Woods. Let us have action now in east Meath. The people need it and demand it. Tania O'Neill, a mother from the area, is campaigning very strongly on the issue.
It is scandalous the electoral district with the second-largest population in County Meath does not have a full-time Garda station. That is indefensible. I cannot put it any more simply than to say Laytown and the wider east Meath area demands and needs a 24-7 Garda station. As all present are aware, three weeks ago, Jamie O'Neill, a young leaving certificate student from Bettystown, was viciously beaten in a savage and unprovoked attack on Bettystown beach. The policing district is managed out of Ashbourne rather than out of Drogheda Garda station, which is nearby. The call that was made to the Garda about the incident ended up in Kildare. This is madness.
There are 22 gardaí in Laytown, up only marginally on the number in 2016. When the station is closed, the area is managed by mobile dynamic patrols. Until the crash and the cutbacks of 2008, the station had its own superintendent. In fact, there were plans to build a brand new station in the Laytown area to service the rapidly expanding east Meath and south Drogheda area, but responsibility was then given to Ashbourne, 30 km away, to manage Laytown.
The population of the area has trebled since 1996. It is not the small rural picture-postcard hamlet it used to be, although it is still very beautiful and one of my favourite places. However, it has got bigger and the challenges have become more extreme, but the services have not been provided to respond to the population changes. It has suffered more than its fair share of poor planning decisions and poor public policymaking in the past 20 years. The people of the area are entitled to security, a full-time station and to have their demands met as taxpayers and citizens. If the Government does not agree with the emotional arguments in favour of providing a full-time station, it should just look at the figures and how rapidly the population of the area has expanded in the past three years and how it will expand again in the coming years in the context of the new draft Meath development plan.
On behalf of the Minister for Justice, I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. The Garda Commissioner is responsible by law for the management and administration of Garda business, including the distribution of members of the Garda throughout the State. The Minister for Justice has no role in these independent functions. The determination of the need for the development of a new Garda station in Meath or at any other location will be considered by the Commissioner in the context of the overall accommodation requirements arising from the ongoing expansion of the Garda workforce, the availability of capital funding, the implementation of A Policing Service for our Future, the Government’s implementation plan for the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, and the new Garda operating model which will inform the accommodation priorities of An Garda Síochána in the years 2022 to 2030.
The Office of Public Works, OPW, has responsibility for the provision and maintenance of Garda accommodation. Works in respect of Garda accommodation are progressed by the Garda authorities working in close co-operation with the OPW. Again, the Minister for Justice has no direct role in these matters. I am assured that Garda management keeps the distribution of all resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities to ensure their optimum use. In that regard, I note the crimes cited by the Deputies.
There has been a significant increase in Garda resources in Meath in recent years. As of the end of May 2021, a total of 322 Garda members, in addition to 43 Garda staff, were assigned to the Meath division. These figures represent increases of 16% and 65%, respectively, since December 2015. As regards Laytown Garda station in particular, an inspector was appointed to the station in January of this year, indicating the commitment of An Garda Síochána to the area. I am advised that local Garda management has taken steps to improve Garda coverage in the area. These steps include increased frequency of patrols in affected areas as well as regular support from the divisional operational support unit for the area. The Meath division is one of four divisions earmarked by the Commissioner for the introduction of the new Garda operating model in the next year. The new operating model is envisaged to deliver improvements to structures, processes, services and governance, and there will be an increase in the number of front-line gardaí.
As the Deputies will be aware, the Drogheda: Creating a Bridge to a Better Future report recently published by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and compiled by Mr. Vivian Geiran, a former director of the Probation Service, recommends that exploration of how to address the issue of the impact of the county boundaries of Louth and Meath and the corresponding delineation between Garda districts and divisions, with specific regard to the policing of the Laytown-Bettystown area of east Meath, be undertaken. An implementation plan for the report is due to be published by the Department of Justice shortly. I again thank the Deputies for raising this issue.
I welcome the final section of the reply of the Minister of State. The Geiran report was commissioned following the appalling and vile murders in the Drogheda area. Indeed, there were also murders in east Meath, including the execution of a person outside his front door. In addition there are people missing, believed murdered, in the same general area. It is a significant issue. I welcome that reference was made to the Geiran report. That means the Commissioner is aware of the action he must take. He has listened to us previously and I stress I have every confidence he will act on this issue, but he needs to act now because the Tania O'Neills of this world will not wait and let their sons or daughters be attacked and assaulted.
They want a proper and appropriate Garda service and they are entitled to it. Gardaí want to provide that service but they are not in place to do so. We need additional gardaí to be assigned to the area. The initiative introduced by Commissioner Drew Harris in Drogheda was very welcome. We need him to introduce a new initiative in east Meath.
I met today with local Garda management and with Tania O'Neill, the mother of James. She speaks for all local parents and citizens, who are deeply frustrated with the situation, notwithstanding the good efforts of local gardaí and Garda management. This is not just an emotional argument. All the evidence is there, including the Central Statistics Office data showing a huge increase of 70% in public order offences in the area between 2018 and 2019. There was an increase in the region of 15% in recorded crime for the station at Laytown between 2016 and 2019. We have seen far too many gang-related criminal problems in the area, with some residents complaining there is open drug dealing going on and people behaving with impunity. Only 7% of all Garda resources in the community are deployed to the east Meath area. Given the size of the agglomerated area made up of Laytown, Bettystown, Mornington and south Drogheda, we are entitled to expect more. We are entitled to expect a full-time Garda station for these citizens and taxpayers to help them feel more secure and support what is a great community that is set to develop further over the next few years.
On behalf of the Minister for Justice, I again thank both Deputies for raising this matter. It is vitally important and they have brought forward very serious crime issues in the area that we need to tackle. I assure them that community safety is a priority for the Government and An Garda Síochána, as evidenced by the Government's unprecedented Garda provision for 2021. In tandem with this year's record Garda budget, the Department's justice plan for 2021 includes a range of commitments focused on actively supporting communities to enhance the safety of all residents. These include the establishment of a special expert forum on antisocial behaviour, which has already helped to inform a new scheme to tackle the misuse of scramblers and quad bikes. We also had the launch in April of the new youth justice strategy for 2021 to 2027, which has a strong focus on diverting young people away from offending and building supports to provide prevention and early intervention in young people's lives. Antisocial behaviour will also be considered by the local community safety partnerships that are to be set up by every local authority under the Department's new community safety policy. Three pilot partnerships are currently being established, in Dublin's north inner city, Longford and Waterford, and will run for the next two years, ahead of a nationwide roll-out. That is to be welcomed.
I assure the Deputies that the Minister for Justice continues to meet with the Garda Commissioner on an ongoing basis in regard to all Garda enforcement matters. I encourage members of the public to report any incidents of assault or antisocial behaviour directly to An Garda Síochána.