Thursday, 27 October 2011
I take the opportunity to raise a serious issue, namely, cuts to the Garda budget this year and beyond and the impact this might have on services to the people of Dublin North-East. Earlier this year we were privileged to have the visits to Ireland of President Obama and the Queen. I understand the policing aspects of these visits cost €35 million but the benefits for tourism and other sectors of the economy undoubtedly far outweigh the costs. At the time we were led to believe by the Government that additional funding would be provided for the Garda budget this year to avoid being obliged to make cuts to normal Garda services to cover the cost of the visits. This is entirely appropriate, given that there will be a net gain to the Exchequer overall from the visits and it is only right that money should be provided from other areas to ensure the preservation of policing strength this year.
In May the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, stated the Government was "anxious to ensure that the capacity of the Garda to provide a full and proper service ... would not be [in any way] impaired" by the cost of the State visits. However, almost five months later he has confirmed to the Dáil that there still is no agreement between himself and his colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, on providing more money for the Garda budget. It is now the end of October and the year's end is approaching swiftly. At this late juncture one may suspect that funding will not be provided for the Garda to cover the costs of the State visits.
In response to a question in the Dáil last Tuesday from my colleague, Deputy Dara Calleary, Fianna Fáil's Front Bench spokesperson on justice, the Minister stated he had asked the Garda Commissioner to examine the possibility of making savings in future years to the Garda Síochána budget by cutting the opening hours of Garda stations and closing some stations nationwide. In recent weeks there have been worrying reports that the stations in Malahide and Howth are among those in line to get the chop from the Government. Were this to happen I would be extremely concerned, as would my colleague, Senator Darragh O'Brien, who looks after the Dublin North area. Malahide Garda station serves Portmarnock in Dublin North-East and Malahide and its hinterland in Dublin North. The Government had discussed previously — in fairness, its predecessor also had been given proposals — possible savings with regard to small rural stations. I refer to stations in which only one garda is based in an area and in which the community could be better served by having that garda out on the beat all the time, rather than being based in a building. However, far from being small stations, the station at Howth has 40 gardaí based in it, while 36 gardaí are based in the station at Malahide. In other words, these are huge stations serving busy urban areas. In conjunction with the Garda stations located at Raheny and Coolock, they provide an incredibly important service for the people of Dublin North-East.
Consequently, I have two issues on which I seek a response from the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, on behalf of his ministerial colleague. There is much concern about this issue in the area from which I come and people seek a clear and fair answer from the Government at this stage to learn what is being planned behind the scenes. First, will the Garda budget be afforded additional funding this year to meet the cost of the State visits and avoid essential front-line services being cut nationwide? Second, will the Minister of State and the Government rule out the closure of Malahide, Howth, Coolock and Raheny Garda stations? While Malahide and Howth Garda stations were mentioned in the media articles, one has no idea what other stations are being examined by the Government. The Minister of State should respond clearly on these two issues. All Members will agree that local Garda stations provide an incredibly important service for the community and even in the context of the recession, if one cuts money from such services now, one will end up paying for it in the long term.
The Minister for Justice and Equality and Defence, Deputy Alan Shatter, has asked me to thank the Senator for raising this matter, as it provides him with an opportunity to clarify the position on the important topic she has highlighted.
Before I continue, I know Members will join me, on behalf of the Minister, in again sending our deepest sympathy to the family, colleagues and friends of Garda Ciaran Jones who was swept away while helping members of the public in the most hazardous of conditions last Monday evening in County Wicklow. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this dreadful and sad time.
It is important to put in context the matter raised by the Senator. Under plans agreed by the previous Government as part of its compliance with the terms of the EU-IMF agreement, Garda numbers are to be reduced to 13,500 by the end of this year and by a further 500 to 13,000 by 2014. However, what will ultimately determine the sustainable level of Garda numbers is the level of budgetary provision that can be made for the force in the coming years. Difficult decisions will have to be made right across the public sector to bring the public finances back into balance. This means the Garda Síochána, like every other public sector body, is going to have to manage with reduced resources. The Garda Commissioner is, therefore, reviewing all aspects of policing operations, including the deployment of personnel, the utilisation of modern technologies and the operation of Garda stations. No decision has been taken on the closure of any Garda station or a reduction of public opening hours in some stations. However, the Garda Commissioner will have to address these issues as part of the review. He may have to consider whether, in appropriate cases, a better policing service could be delivered to a local community by having Garda members out on patrol rather than in a station. The Minister will carefully consider the outcome of the review and the Garda Commissioner's policing plan for next year with the objective of ensuring priority is given to the maintenance of front-line Garda services at the highest level possible.
On behalf of the Minister, I pay tribute to the Garda Síochána at this particularly difficult time for the commitment and professionalism it displays in carrying out its duties, as exemplified recently by the selfless sacrifice made by Garda Ciaran Jones. The Minister is confident that the Garda will continue to maintain the confidence of the public and operate successfully, as it has been doing so effectively since the foundation of the State.
I note the Minister of State did not rule out the closure of Howth or Malahide Garda stations. Has the Government a list of Garda stations in north-east Dublin that it is considering for closure or downgrading? While I accept the Minister of State claims no final decision has been made, when it is, it will be too late for people in the area to make their dissatisfaction clear to the Government.
Will the Minister of State confirm if extra moneys will be given to the Garda to cover the cost of the State visits during the summer, as originally promised, so as to avoid cuts to front-line services?
The Department of Justice and Equality is in discussions with the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, with the Garda Commissioner, on dealing with the cost of the State visits. We are faced with difficult economic challenges, passed on to us by the previous Government, and money is not that freely available. However, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, is following up on the issue of these costs.
As I stated, the Garda Commissioner and Garda management are reviewing policing operations. When the review is completed, the Minister will let both Houses know — he has stated he will leave no Member in the dark — when he has made a decision, unlike the previous Government which did not inform either Members or the public about decisions it had made to cut services or the reasons behind them.