Wednesday, 23 January 2013
Community Development: Motion
With respect, I wish to put the matter on the record. It applies also to the Adjournment debate where the Minister, Deputy Shatter, has delegated other Ministers and does so on an ongoing basis. I am uncomfortable with that. I would prefer if the Minister attended to hear our concerns directly.
This motion is timely although it had its genesis some months ago when the Labour Party Seanad group first suggested it. It was deferred over Christmas yet in the current climate it is not only topical but pertinent. Unfortunately, the need for such a motion was brought home to us yet again during the Christmas and new year period when, in rural areas in particular, elderly people in isolated areas found themselves exposed and vulnerable to unscrupulous people who take advantage of them and bring terror into their lives. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have this happen to a family member or somebody in one's own area.
However, it is not a rural issue only and applies also in large urban centres. To be fair to the Seanad, on a number of occasions we highlighted serious crime issues, attacks and assaults in Dublin city, some occurring in broad daylight and on main thoroughfares. Some of these attacks resulted in deaths. A former journalist colleague was a victim of one such attack. We cannot be complacent and say we are comfortable, that we are doing the right thing and our policy is intact, if people are unsafe in their own homes and on the main streets of our towns and cities. I brought this issue up before Christmas, noting that people were afraid to walk and do their shopping in broad daylight on the main street of Mountmellick. This is not acceptable. To be fair, considerable resources have been made available, as Senator Landy pointed out, for a new fleet of up to 200 Garda patrol cars. When will these be despatched? We were told they would be commissioned in January but I have not seen any of them on the streets of Laois-Offaly. I would like to see them out and about at the earliest possible time.
I have done some research with Garda colleagues and retired gardaí on the issue of the closure of stations. It is not about trying to retain the building per se for the sole purpose of having it in place with one garda attached to it. However, there is a problem if that garda is lost to the force or if a level of manpower is lost in that area or redeployed elsewhere, leaving entire swathes without Garda cover. One of the mistakes we made was to close the Garda Training College in Templemore - I cannot understand how we will have adequate policing into the future. The answer is not to shorten the time in which training takes places. I saw it mooted that when the college reopens the training period should be reduced from two years. That would be a mistake. We need new gardaí and new blood within the force but it is important that they are properly resourced and trained. It would be unwise to fast-track that training.
I have another suggestion for the Minister of State. Up to ten years ago members of the Defence Forces were able to transfer to other sections within the Department of Defence, such as the Prison Service or the Garda Síochána, seamlessly, without any loss of service. They had to be properly trained, of course. That is something we should explore. I am sure there are many members of the Defence Forces who might like to take up the opportunity to transfer to the Garda and this would help to shore up Garda numbers at a time when, as Senator Landy pointed out, there will not be adequate policing if we allow the number to drop much further. People are reassured by Garda presence and visibility in patrols. I welcome the announcement, made by the Minister, to be fair, that part of the new policy and strategy will be to redeploy Garda resources to ensure there is more adequate patrolling and more significant policing on the streets. One could go for weeks on end in towns in the country and not meet a garda on the beat, as traditionally one used to.
It is very important that people are reassured during the day and, more importantly, at night. It is also important that gardaí are in a position to increase their local knowledge through interfacing with the community and developing good relationships which, in turn, leads to crime prevention.
At the moment, there is no doubt that many parts of rural Ireland are soft targets for roaming gangs who know that Garda resources are stretched to the limit and that the response time is inadequate. Such gangs often set up decoys to distract the gardaí. They draw the patrol car to one area while they carry out their dirty deeds elsewhere and rain terror down on elderly people, in particular, living in isolated areas.
Like Senator Landy, I commend the work of Neighbourhood Watch and Community Alert schemes throughout the country. They serve a useful purpose as I know well from my own area - the schemes in Timahoe and Ratheniska work very well and are a source of comfort to people. I must also commend the gardaí who were involved in setting up such schemes, many of whom are now retired. However, they must be underpinned by an adequate Garda response time, sufficient Garda resources and ongoing liaison with gardaí on the ground because signage on the side of the road saying "Community Alert Area" is not enough.
I accept that we all have a collective responsibility in this area. Perhaps schemes and initiatives could be put in place that have worked well in the UK and other areas, where people come together to support the police in their work. I do not want to be alarmist but it has been mentioned to me on more than one occasion that if we do not put policies in place that restore Garda visibility and Garda patrols in our towns and villages, it will lead to people taking the law into their own hands, which I do not condone or support. We will see an upsurge in vigilantism in some parts of the country with people believing they must take the law into their own hands to protect their communities. I ask the Minister of State to take these points on board and relay them to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter.