Seanad debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2024

Community Safety and Investment: Motion [Private Members]


10:30 am

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber for the debate. I thank my colleague Senator Moynihan for all her work on the motion. Three months ago last week, Dublin city went up in flames. It is three months since a few hundred rioters took control of our streets for a few hours until An Garda Síochána from across the country and all levels including sergeants and inspectors, showed their courage and considerable bravery and came out and fought back and reasserted control over our city that night.

The trauma from that night still runs really deep. I talk to school principals in the north inner city who tell me there are children from migrant backgrounds who still have a fear about going to school. In the two weeks after 23 November there was an incredible drop in attendance in schools. Some of that has recovered but nonetheless, that fear remains there. Talking to women’s addiction recovery groups in the inner city, I know they are terrified about the communities that they live in and that in the communities they were born into, they remain fearful of the people they walk alongside. There has been an increase in the number of homophobic attacks and attacks on tourists. There is growing concern for anyone from a migrant or LGBT background walking in Dublin, particularly at this time. It is not confined to Dublin; it is across the country. However, I am speaking about the experience I know best, which relates to Dublin.Even today, three months on from the incident on 23 November, I spent time today with parents of Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire and I acknowledge that the Minister attended that first meeting with those parents. Those children continue to experience a trauma from the horrendous incident of that day. We are not just talking about the need for therapies but also the much broader question of how we ensure a safer city. That is not just about boots on the ground patrolling our streets. It is also about the concentration of services for very vulnerable people in a very small area. It is about the range of amenities for our young people that are available in the area. Senator Moynihan already spoke about the lack of green space and playing space in the south inner city, and indeed in the north inner city, time and again we hear the stories of sporting clubs reliant on too few playing pitches. When that is compared with other parts of the country and city, they do not have a fighting chance of giving their young people a start.

I would have hoped that 23 November would have been a turning point in this city, that it would have represented a point in time when we could have said there was going to be a significant change in the energies and attitude of the Government with regard to resourcing An Garda Síochána and our inner-city communities, and that there would have been a significant improvement in safety and the feeling of safety in our city. Right now, I am not so sure we have seen any turning point. Right now, 23 November has been forgotten about and we have just gone back to business.

Despite the brilliant effort of so many gardaí, sergeants and inspectors on the ground, the reality is they remain hugely stretched. We have had 24 extra gardaí in the north inner city between 2022 and 2023. That is an increase but that only brings us back to 2018 levels. Over the past decade we have seen a 40% increase in the population in certain areas within the north inner city. An Garda Síochána is not even running to stand still with regard to its numbers on the ground.

When we look at our community policing model, the model and structures that were championed by the now retired Superintendent Pat Leahy are a shadow of their former selves. There has been a 71% drop in the numbers in community policing in the north inner city over the past decade. When I talk to the community police who give so much of themselves to the community, we hear that their rosters have not returned to the pre-pandemic roster, like for every other Garda member. If you are in the Bridewell or if you are a community garda, you get hauled in to provide court security and other distractions. There is no career progression if you are a community garda in service. I have sat with far too many residents' groups and community gardaí who have gone out of their way to try to meet residents’ groups and meet their concerns, only for those gardaí then to be changed within six months and to have that constant churn. That has to change and that message has to be delivered by the Minister to the Garda Commissioner.

I know there are no silver bullets on recruitment, but it has been on Fine Gael's watch that we have seen the dramatic drop in Garda numbers over recent years. While I know there have been many initiatives talked about, I also want to ask the Minister to look at reopening the Garda training college in Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park. For those we are trying to attract into An Garda Síochána right now, those who may be a little bit older with a bit more experience, upping sticks and heading for Templemore is simply not an option, particularly at the rates of pay that are on offer when they are there. There is a very real issue about how we attract more people into An Garda Síochána, and it is incredible and, frankly, ridiculous that we do not have a training college in the capital city.

Ultimately, if we are to have safer communities, then it is about resourcing and prevention. When I look again at the north inner city, and it is the areas from Dublin 1, 3 and part of Dublin 7, we see that we have only five juvenile liaison officers across the whole of the north inner city, and that has only increased by one over the past 12 months. It is less than half of what it was five years ago. If we have any hope of trying to divert young people away from a life of crime to keep them on the straight and narrow, then we have to ensure far greater resources are put into youth diversion projects.

I know there are a number of excellent youth diversion and youth projects in the inner city but they are not getting the resources they need. To be fair, when we look at what the Department of Justice is doing with pay for those working within the youth diversion projects, there has been progress. When we look at what has happened in the Department of children in the past two years, where there has been an 11% cut in real terms in funding for youth projects supported by that Department, there is a fundamental problem. This cannot be a siloed approach, however, where we have the Department of Justice doing one thing and the Department of children doing something else. Both have to be working together if we are to get this right.

Right now, one of the youth projects in the north inner city that I know very well has a waiting list to get into it. That is absolutely crazy when we think of the life that is potentially on offer to so many of these young people, especially with the easy availability of drugs and a life of crime that is on their doorsteps. We have to get the resources right for our young people and for the whole of the community to ensure it is safe for everybody living in the community but that we also divert people from a life of crime, because right now it is much easier to make money from drugs than it is to go down the road of staying in education. Time and again, we see that is the fate of too many young people.

My plea to the Minister is that we have to get the small area policing right. That model, to my mind, has been almost abandoned - not fully abandoned - by the Garda Commissioner. That has to change. We must also get the recruitment right. A starting point, and it is only one part of the bigger jigsaw, is that we must have a Garda training college in the Phoenix Park. The third key issue is we need to ensure the resources are going into crime prevention and youth diversion projects and that we see a dramatic increase in the funding for youth diversion projects and in the personnel in those projects. Ultimately, we will be having the same conversation next year, in five years and in ten years’ time about the vicious cycle of deprivation, of trauma and of crime that far too many people end up in within certain communities in our State.


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