Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

An Garda Síochána

5:55 pm

Photo of Joe FlahertyJoe Flaherty (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State will be aware of an open letter sent from the people of Longford to the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Drew Harris, urgently seeking additional gardaí for Longford town to tackle a spate of antisocial and violent crime. It is well known that as many as 14 different feuds, involving seven families, are smearing Longford's reputation and propelling us in the media as an area rife for antisocial and violent behaviour. Longford has been selected as one of the three national pilot schemes for the local community safety partnership. As part of the engagement process, the Minister sat in on a recent session of Comhairle na nÓg in Longford town, at which she heard at first hand young people speak of their fear on the streets of Longford.

Community policing needs resources, and when we do it right, it can be very effective. We have an excellent drugs unit in the Longford-Roscommon district and one of the top-performing community policing units in Longford town, ably led by Sergeant Darren Conlon, but to maintain that level of visible policing we need personnel. It takes a minimum of three officers to staff the station, and more if there are prisoners on site. The latest figures suggest the total complement of officers for Longford town is 77 gardaí, with a further 62 throughout the county. However, as of the end of February, at least 22 of these officers were unavailable for duty, through either secondment to other duties or districts, absence due to injury or illness or being on restricted duty. At best, Longford Garda station is struggling to operate, with at least one in five of its allotted officers absent, and this is before it makes provision for court duties and other operations. It is simply impossible to meet the demands now facing this busy station.

The Minister met Superintendent Séamus Boyle and other senior officers on her recent visit, and as one they spoke to the urgent need for more gardaí for Longford town. The population of the town is approximately 12,000, yet in recent weeks an additional six gardaí were allocated to the leafy suburb of Malahide, which has a population of 4,000 and very few of the socioeconomic challenges facing us in Longford. Garda management is reviewing its options for Longford and, based on the Malahide numbers, one would expect an additional five or six officers for Longford. That, in turn, presents us with an opportunity to bring in experienced officers, several of whom are currently based in Dublin and are very adept at dealing with the issues and challenges that now confront Longford. They are willing and eager to relocate to Longford and will bring with them much-needed experience and know-how as we face the malaise that is afflicting our town.

We hear much criticism of the courts in the context of the challenges facing Longford. There is sufficient legislation on the Statute Book to tackle these challenges, but what we need is a strict and near-militant interpretation of the bail laws. Bail is not a get-out-of-jail card but rather a privilege afforded to some while they await a court date. It comes with strict conditions, which can include the need to sign on daily at the local Garda station or to stay out a given town, non-association with named individuals, curfews, social media bans and, indeed, anything a garda considers necessary in the interests of public safety. Most judges will approve these terms and others if the case is set out for them. We need to start fully implementing the terms of the Bail Act. At any time, 50 to 70 people are on bail in Longford town. It is a major Garda operation in itself to police the conditions of these bail terms and it demands time and resources, but when done meticulously it can be a very effective deterrent.

In short, we need more gardaí for Longford town, visible on-street policing and a meticulous governing of the bail conditions in Longford town.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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On behalf of the Minister for Justice, I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am very familiar with the disturbing news that has come from Longford in recent months. As he acknowledged, the allocation of Garda resources is an operational policing matter for the Garda Commissioner. Section 33 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, as amended, provides for the Commissioner to determine the manner in which members of An Garda Síochána are distributed and stationed throughout the State, and the Minister has no statutory role in regard to this matter. She has been advised that Garda management keeps the distribution of resources under continual review in the context of policing priorities and crime trends to ensure their optimum use. I understand it is a matter for the divisional chief superintendent to determine the optimal distribution of duties among the personnel available to him or her, having regard to the profile of each area within the division and its specific needs.

I am informed by the Garda authorities that, as of 6 May 2022, resourcing in the Longford district comprises one superintendent, three inspectors, 13 sergeants and 79 gardaí, and that the majority of violent crimes occurring in the Longford district in the year to date have related to feuding families. Local Garda management has responded to the situation between the feuding families by establishing Operation Stola in April 2019 to accurately monitor, record and manage the feud. I am further advised 6,761 incidents have been associated with this operation and that all resources within the Longford district are actively targeting the issues surrounding the feud, with 206 arrests effected and 454 charges preferred. A total of 54 of the charges relate to violent crimes, including assaults, violent disorder and knife crimes.

More generally, I am aware An Garda Síochána in Longford is dealing with all reported crimes - antisocial behaviour and otherwise - within Longford district in an expedited manner. It is working closely with the victims of crime and the public in general to ensure it provides an efficient policing service to Longford. For its part, the Government remains committed to ensuring An Garda Síochána has the resources it needs, with an unprecedented allocation provided in budget 2022 of more than €2 billion. This includes funding for the recruitment of up to 800 Garda members and 400 Garda staff this year. As the Deputy noted, the Minister engaged with community representatives during a visit to County Longford in February and is encouraged by the positive collaborative work emanating from Longford's pilot local community safety partnership. The partnership represents a significant element of the Government's new community safety policy, which facilitates formal collaboration by community representatives, local business and public service providers to tackle key issues identified by the community itself. The Longford partnership is subject to independent monitoring and evaluation throughout the life of the pilot, and learnings arising from its operation will inform its work into the future as well as the roll-out of partnerships nationwide.

The Deputy referred to the allocation of resources and gardaí to a town in north Dublin. I am sure that will be brought to the attention of the local Garda authorities. Situations such as the one the Deputy raised should be dealt with and should get the necessary resources, but that is a matter for the Garda authorities.

Photo of Joe FlahertyJoe Flaherty (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his solidarity with the people of Longford. He set out clearly the specifics of the Garda operation under way in Longford and the fact there have been almost 7,000 incidents related to an operation launched in 2019.

The reality is that businesses and retailers are facing into what will arguably be one of the most uncertain times in their trading lives with soaring energy costs and a cost-of-living crisis. The traders and businesses of Longford town face the additional challenge of violence on the street and the public consciously deciding not to visit the town, not to shop there and not to socialise in their county town. It is an enormous additional and wholly unreasonable burden to place on a town. It is a burden that has now plagued Longford for almost a decade. These acts of violence and public order violations are a stain on the decades of toil, passion and absolute dedication and devotion that are synonymous with Longford and on the selfless sacrifice that helped to make Longford a leading light in provincial Ireland. An extra five to six officers, boots on the ground and a rigid application of the bail laws would allow us to put the colour and swagger back into Longford. It is not a big ask but it is one we make with deference and a heartfelt sense of absolute necessity.

I thank the Minister of State and the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this issue tonight. At a time when we are starting to see real and significant progress in job creation and investment in Longford, the near incessant linking of the town with violent crime is highly demoralising. Longford remains one of the best places to live and work and is definitely one of the best places in Ireland to do business. It gives me no pleasure to paint the picture I have painted here in the House this evening. I thank my colleague, Councillor Seamus Butler, who instigated this very public appeal for additional gardaí. I know that Garda allocation remains the domain of the Commissioner but it is important that he hears the concerns I am raising here tonight, which are the heartfelt concerns of the people of Longford.

6:05 pm

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Flaherty has again outlined the fact that businesses, retailers, citizens and communities need to keep safe. Tackling organised criminal activity remains a key priority for this Government. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I are very conscious of the repercussions such criminal behaviour can have on the quality of life of residents and local communities. It is important that people feel safe and are safe in their communities. Again, I am familiar with this issue. It is not nice to listen to the bad news emanating from Longford. These activities are carried out by people who do not have the goodwill of the people of Longford. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter.

To look at what has been done, there are currently 6,761 incidents associated with An Garda Síochána's operation in the area. All resources in the Longford district are actively targeting the issues surrounding the feud with 206 arrests effected and 454 charges preferred. Some 54 of these charges relate to violent crimes including assaults, violent assaults and knife crime. That is a shocking statistic. I thank the men and women of An Garda Síochána for the incredible work they do, which sometimes goes unnoticed. I also want to thank the communities and people of Longford, the Deputy and the other Oireachtas Members from the county, the local representatives and all of the various stakeholders for standing up and raising this issue. By tackling it together, across the community, with the help of An Garda Síochána and all of its resources, this situation can be resolved. I hope it can be resolved quickly.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Minister of State and the Deputy for dealing with that particularly important matter. We now move from policing to issues with disability services. The next item is in the name of Deputy Verona Murphy, who wishes to discuss the lack of core services from child disability network teams across the country.