Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

An Garda Síochána

5:35 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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Last week, news broke that the next round of training for the Garda armed support unit, ASU, had been cancelled. I raised the matter in the House during questions on promised legislation. The competition to fill places on this course was completed back in 2019.

Those selected gardaí have been waiting since 2019 to take part in this armed support unit training. These gardaí effectively have had to put elements of their personal lives on hold while they wait on standby for their start date. It now appears that with a click of the fingers, this training course is gone and they have waited in vain. Garda headquarters said claims that the 2019 competition has been halted are incorrect. However, Garda membership say the message has been delivered clearly to them that it has been cancelled.

There were widespread media reports last week that the armed support unit across Dublin had barely enough resources to be operational and is only at 75% capacity. Last year alone, there were more than 2,500 weapons and explosive offences across the State. Ireland has a high rate of gun violence. Our gun murder rate is six times that of Britain and one of the highest across the EU.

Of course, it is not only firearms incidents to which the armed support unit responds. It is called upon daily to deal with the growing use of knives by gangs. Over a four-year period, the number of knife seizures in Dublin across most divisions has doubled. Local residents in City Quay have raised the issue before. They are still living in dread. I acknowledge that the Garda has put in place a plan to tackle the random street violence and use of knives in City Quay and in the Creighton Street and Pearse Street areas. That has been very welcome and has made a difference. Residents still live in dread, however. Young people are hiding weapons and knives in the bushes of Elizabeth O'Farrell Park in City Quay. It is still a community in fear. It is really important that the armed support unit is resourced properly.

The increasing use of weapons such as guns and knives is a cause for concern, not just for working-class communities but also the rank-and-file gardaí who patrol the streets. When a 999 call comes in regarding a possible knife or gun crime, it is the armed support unit that gardaí turn to for backup. How does it instil confidence in the public when we hear reports of gardaí having to wait up to three hours for support? The feud that has already claimed one life in Finglas is at boiling point. Gangland tension is rising across Dublin and spilling over into different parts of the city, including my own constituency of Dublin Bay South. Recently in Digges Street, shots were fired through a window at a family who were all at home. It was a case of mistaken identity. The perpetrators thought it was a different flat. That family is terrified; they are afraid go back home now.

Will the Minister of State comment on the current status of the next round of training for the Dublin region armed support unit? I understand the Government may be of the view that this an internal matter for An Garda Síochána and that it is independent in its allocation of resources. Naturally, it always says that but things have got so bad that it is very important the Government intervenes to ensure resources are in place to allow the armed support unit to make sure our communities right across the inner city are safe. Currently, that feeling is not there. The Garda and armed support unit need to be resourced properly.

5:45 pm

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue in the House. The Deputy will appreciate, of course, that Garda training is an operational matter for the Garda Commissioner. Under section 26 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, as amended, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the management and administration of Garda business, including the training of Garda members and staff. The Minister for Justice has no role in these operational policing matters. I am advised by the Commissioner that the armed support units are regional resources, serving all the Garda districts and divisions in each of the Garda regions.

The armed support units are an overt armed support service and are deployed on a 24-7 basis, providing a high-visibility, tactical armed response, including enhanced, less lethal capability. Members of the armed support units are highly trained and equipped with a variety of non-lethal and lethal weapons and perform high-visibility armed checkpoints and patrols throughout their respective regions.

In the event of an armed incident or similar incident, armed detective members from local district and divisional units will respond, as will the regional armed support unit. Should the incident be escalated and further armed support be required, the national emergency response unit, which is highly trained and specially equipped to respond to the most serious of incidents, is also available.

I am informed by the Garda authorities that the training and deployment of armed support units remains a priority for An Garda Síochána in 2022 in line with best international practices. Recertification and refresher training continues to be provided for armed support units in both the Dublin metropolitan region and nationwide. I am further advised by An Garda Síochána that all armed support unit personnel received the necessary training in 2021 to permit issuance with authority to carry firearms in 2022.

The Garda has advised that preselection and predeployment training for armed support unit applicants as part of an ongoing competition to fill vacancies in the armed support units nationally has been intermittently impacted and delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and other competing training demands. I understand, however, that a number of candidates for the Dublin metropolitan region armed support unit completed their predeployment training requirements in March 2022 and await allocation by Garda human resource management to existing vacancies in the region.

The Government's commitment to tackle organised crime and the related issue of gangland violence is reflected in the Justice Plan 2022, which contains a number of actions under the objective of strengthening measures to tackle terrorism and other serious and organised crime through domestic action and international co-operation. The Minister looks forward to updating the Deputy again on these matters in due course. I hear what the Deputy is saying about the seriousness of knife crime. It is an issue that needs to be tackled. I thank him for raising this very important matter.

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for that response. I did anticipate that he was going to say it was an operational matter and, of course, nobody expects the Government to get involved in the day-today running. When there is an armed support unit, however, which is vital to the safety of communities throughout the country, and no more so than in Dublin Bay South in the inner city where, like I said, there is serious violence using knives and where guns are being shot, Government must intervene, not in how its personnel are trained or where they are deployed but to ensure it has enough resources. If it does not have enough resources, the gardaí cannot do their jobs properly and protect the communities they have been requested to protect.

The competition process for the Dublin region of the armed support unit was launched in 2019 and, of course, it was impacted by the pandemic. However, the reason for launching that competition has not changed and probably has become more acute and worsened. It was launched in 2019 due to the low numbers in the armed support unit and, three years on, approximately ten gardaí have left the unit recently due to transfers and promotions. With a fresh round of promotions to the rank of sergeant issued last Friday, it is safe to say the number of departures will grow. In effect, the combined resources will probably be down approximately 75% to 80% of what they should be. That is not acceptable. Communities are being left exposed. I accept the Government cannot intervene in day-to-day procedures but it must intervene to ensure the Garda armed support unit and individual gardaí are resourced properly in order that they can protect communities like those in City Quay and Pearse Street that have been left high and dry. They have been left to try to look after themselves, and that will not suit anyone.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy again for raising this very important issue. As I outlined, tackling organised criminal activity remains a key priority for the Government. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I are very conscious of the repercussions such criminal behaviour can have on the quality of life for residents in local communities, as the Deputy has outlined. It is important people feel safe and are safe in their communities.

The Deputy will be aware the criminal justice (miscellaneous provisions) Bill is currently being drafted and will provide, among other matters, for an increase in the penalty for conspiring to commit murder and soliciting to commit murder from a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Work is continuing on the drafting of the Bill based on the general scheme and further legal advices. The 2022 justice plan commits to the publication of these provisions in the second quarter of this year. This and other initiatives in train, such as the commitment in the justice plan to working to break the link between gangs and the children they seek to recruit, build on the considerable range of legislative measures taken in recent years, such as the Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Act 2016, which provides additional Garda power for the immediate seizure of assets suspected of being the proceeds of crime to prevent them from being disposed of; the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014, providing for the establishment and operation of the DNA database providing the Garda with links between people and unsolved crimes; and the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009, introduced to protect the justice system from being subverted by criminal groups, including the potential intimidation of juries.

The Deputy raised some very important issues, which I will bring to the attention of the Minister.