Seanad debates

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Adjournment Matters

Garda Districts

2:15 pm

Photo of Michael D'ArcyMichael D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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In tabling this motion, I am trying to delve into the rationale for the decision by senior gardaí to amalgamate the Gorey and Enniscorthy districts. When this matter was first brought to my attention I raised with senior gardaí, as issues which in my view are relevant, the level of growth in the region and also the speed of growth of criminality there.

Gorey town has grown from being the smallest town of four in the county to the second largest, with a population of approximately 10,000 people. Riverchapel is the second fastest growing urban area on the island. It is important to put this into context. It has not grown from a small village to a bigger village but from a small town to a substantial sized town, with in the region of 5,500 people. The second, fifth and sixth largest towns in the county are in the Gorey district. Of concern to me is the percentage rate of increase in crime in the area. There was a 29% increase in burglaries between 2011 and 2012. I am seeking information in regard to how the decision to amalgamate these two districts was arrived at.

Following this merger, there will be approximately 75,000 people in the catchment area, which is larger than the population of some counties. The number of citizens per garda in Wexford is 548. We learned during the past couple of days that this compares with 299 citizens per police officer in Scotland, 225 citizens per officer in Denmark and 243 citizens per officer in Finland. The average number of citizens per garda in Ireland is 319. However, the figure for County Wexford is one garda for every 548 people. I agree that there is no longer a need for 700 police stations and that as a nation, in terms of communications and road infrastructure, we have moved on. I agree also with much of what the Minister is doing. However, perhaps he will say in his response how this decision was arrived at. I assume it moved up the chain of command to the chief superintendent, assistant commissioner and Commissioner and was finally signed off on by the Minister.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to address this matter.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator D'Arcy for raising this important issue.

The Senator will be aware that proposals to alter Garda districts are in the first instance a matter for the Garda Commissioner, in accordance with the provisions of the Garda Síochána Acts. The Garda Annual Policing Plan for 2013, which was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas in December 2012, set out the Commissioner's proposals in relation to changes within a number of Garda divisions. These changes include proposals to merge 28 Garda districts into 14 expanded districts, including the merger of the Gorey Garda district with the Enniscorthy district within the Wexford division.

The Commissioner's priority in introducing the changes in the 2013 policing plan is to ensure the continued delivery of an effective policing service throughout the country and that Garda resources are deployed to meet the existing and projected policing requirements within all divisions in 2013, including the Wexford division. The amalgamation of Garda districts into larger districts as outlined in the 2013 policing plan will allow for the more flexible deployment of resources and provide improved economies of scale in terms of administration.

The Garda Commissioner has stated that while the revised structures will further enhance operational capacity, they will also continue to support the Garda community policing philosophy. The objective will be to ensure that the best possible policing service will continue to be provided to our communities. The Commissioner makes these decisions in consultation with those working with him. As Minister, I will not second guess the operational judgment of the Commissioner. In that context, I was delighted to launch earlier today the Garda community crime prevention programmes booklet and to acknowledge the very valuable work done by all of those involved in Community Alert and Neighbourhood Watch schemes throughout the country. Members of An Garda Síochána work closely with all communities to enhance community safety through a wide range of local fora, including Community Alert and Neighbourhood Watch. As Minister, I will continue to do everything I can to support the Garda Commissioner in maintaining the strong Garda connection with the community and to ensure that to the maximum extent possible resources will continue to be made available to An Garda Síochána.

The proposed change within the Wexford division is aimed at freeing up gardaí from behind the desk, so they are out and about in our communities engaging in frontline policing and are preventing, detecting and disrupting crime. It is about maximising the time that our well-trained and highly-skilled gardaí spend on operational duties. This requires that available resources are deployed in the most efficient manner to provide for increased Garda visibility and improved Garda mobility.

In the context of the reconfiguration of Garda districts and the consolidation of Garda stations nationally, it is important to emphasise that the measures being implementing are not a cost-cutting measure. As result of these new arrangements, an extra 61,000 Garda patrol hours will be available in 2013. Despite the cuts in last year's budget it is worth noting that I managed to make available some ¤4 million that enabled the purchase of 213 new Garda vehicles in 2012. I have also secured dedicated funding of ¤5 million for the purchase of a significant number of new vehicles in 2013. I reiterate that this is about ensuring that the budget for the Garda Síochána of over ¤1.4 billion is used effectively and efficiently to provide the best possible policing service for the benefit of the people of the State.

I would like to take the opportunity to express my appreciation for the commitment provided by every member of the force. I want to express my gratitude to them, on behalf of all of our citizens, for the excellent service that they provide. I am confident that the changes outlined in the Garda Policing Plan 2013 will enable that level of service to continue.

It is worth saying that we are engaged in a substantial and radical reform of the manner in which the policing services are being delivered Such reform should have been introduced many years ago by my predecessors. I thank the Garda Commissioner for his innovation and excellent assessment and work in this regard. In 2012, a new Garda roster was established which ensures that we have gardaí operating at the times when they are required. We have the station consolidation process which frees up members of the force to engage in more community policing. We are now restructuring the Garda fleet, a matter of considerable importance. It is worth noting that the outgoing Fianna Fáil Government in its National Development Plan 2010 made no provision for funding or capital funding of any nature between 2010 and 2015 for the purchase of new Garda vehicles. The cuts that it sought to affect across the justice family expenditure area exceeded, on average, ¤90 million per year over and above the reduction in resources that my Government has had to deal with.

This is my first opportunity in this House, but I have done so in the other Chamber, to once again express my deep sadness at the brutal murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe who was laid to rest yesterday. May he rest in peace. I would like to use the opportunity to thank Senator Michael D'Arcy for raising these issues today. I will use the opportunity to yet again appeal to any individual anywhere in the community within the State or in Northern Ireland who can assist the Garda or the PSNI in any way whatsoever in the investigation that is under way, and into those who brutally and callously shot down Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe, to make contact with the Garda Síochána or the PSNI and to provide every piece of information that is possible to ensure that those responsible are fully identified, that they are ultimately arrested and properly brought before our courts.

2:25 pm

Photo of Michael D'ArcyMichael D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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I would like to be associated with the Minister's comments. The brutal murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe has left a young widow and family bereaved. Any information that would help, however large or small, could only be of huge benefit to the investigation.

I thank the Minister for his response. He made the point that he did not wish to second guess the Commissioner and I understand his wish. This is not a cost-cutting measure. My concern is that the decision is somewhat unilateral. I do not know whether there was a conversation with members of the force up or down or from the rank of the chief superintendent whom I assume passed his or her recommendation up the line. It is my opinion that the region concerned is too large to leave a station without a senior garda. There should be one senior garda of inspector or superintendent rank in a station of this size. Gorey has a population of 10,000 and the district has a population of about 40,000. I want to see the data and research that has gone into formulating the decision. If somebody can stand over the data then I would be quite happy to support the Minister's decision but I do not believe that the data exists. The decision was unilateral and a little bit arbitrary. I disagree with the decision.

How does the Minister view the retention of senior garda at inspector range in a division or district like this? I have been told that this is not a precedent.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I know that the decision was made by the Garda Commissioner. He prepared a policing plan in consultation with other senior members of the Garda force. A substantial assessment was undertaken on how to affect efficiencies in the force and use resources wisely. It is ultimately for the Commissioner to determine where it is appropriate for particular members of the force to be stationed and the rank of those who should be stationed in particular locations. A broad range of considerations go into that particular matter. It is not a simple issue of assessing issues in a population. It is examining the history of crime in particular areas, where crime hotspots are, where the type of skills required within individual stations are in order to meet the type of criminality, and one that occurs in particular areas, and the nature of the work that is required to be engaged in when it comes to crime prevention.

Very different considerations can impact on the strength of the numbers that might be located within a particular district or division. It depends on its location and whether it is in rural Ireland or is urban. If it is in an urban or a rural area then the nature of those areas, the criminal history of those areas and the type of difficulties that have arisen are considered. The type of issues that might arise in, for example, Border counties can be very different to the type of issues that might arise in Cork and Wexford. There is a whole range of considerations that I know that the Commissioner applies in consultation with his senior colleagues. These are issues in respect of which the Commissioner has the legal authority to make these decisions.

With regard to operational issues, it is not appropriate that I, as Minister, or any other Member of the House, second guess the decisions made by the Commissioner who is an individual that is appointed to that position because of his level of expertise. I do not think it is appropriate or right that any Member of the House questions the intent of the Commissioner or his bona fides in reaching his decisions.

Of course with policing matters there is no absolute or final position with regard to any policy matters. Policy, strength, the workings within Garda stations, the operational specialties that exist within the Garda Síochána, the particular operations that are put in place to target particular people engaged in different types of criminality, all change over time. All of this is something that is under constant consideration and constant review.

The Commissioner has stated that the revised policing arrangements that are now in place will result in improved operational capacity while supporting the Garda Síochána's commitment to community policing. The objective is to ensure that the best possible policing service is delivered within all Garda divisions, including the Wexford division, through the introduction of revised policing structures and the efficient deployment of available resources. We cannot continue policing in the second decade of the 21st century when we have improved technology, better transport systems, better communication system in the same way as we did in 1922, 1932 or even the 1990s.

The world has moved on and it is the job of the Garda Commissioner to take account of needs in particular areas. I understand the genuine nature of the Senator's concern. Burglary is an area of concern to everyone. Crime is substantially down in 12 of the 14 crime categories. In 2011, before a single district was reorganised or a single Garda station closed, there was a spike in burglaries while crime was down in other categories. The efficacy of targeted operations has been established by Operation Fiacla, which the Garda Commissioner established in the spring of 2012. In the period from April to December of 2012, the targeted operation led to 3,500 arrests, with nearly 2,000 individuals charged and brought before the courts. That has been facilitated by a targeted operation identifying the individuals engaged in burglary and aggravated burglaries. The operation targeted certain mobile gangs travelling around the country, targeting individuals in particular counties over a period of days and then moving on elsewhere. This is what new policing is involved in, targeting those engaged in crime and trying to do what is possible in the area of crime prevention and detecting those who commit crime.

Arising out of the community alert and neighbourhood watch event held today, we have over 3,500 groupings engaged across urban and rural Ireland. We could and should have a great deal more. There is a need for communities in rural Ireland to engage in community alert schemes. Assistance is available within the Garda Síochána. Any area without a community alert scheme can benefit from the establishment of one with the assistance of the local community garda or Garda liaison officer. New systems can be put in place to facilitate people who feel threatened in isolated areas to co-ordinate and co-operate with one another and ensure that, where they have suspicions about individuals in the community, people can be alerted. The community text alert scheme, which has been set up on a pilot basis, has proved very successful. Instead of unnecessarily causing alarm in communities and causing people to believe they will be at greater risk because of station closures, I urge Senators, Deputies and colleagues in all parties to assure people it means more members of the Garda force will be available in patrol cars and engaged in community policing rather than sitting in stations. Members should encourage communities and individuals to volunteer for the community alert and neighbourhood watch schemes and to co-ordinate and co-operate with the Garda Síochána. My Department provides funding to assist in these areas. The schemes can be of substantial benefit to assist the Garda Síochána in reducing crime, particularly burglary. There are 13,400 members in the Garda Síochána and we cannot have a garda standing outside the gate or door of every person in every part of the country. No matter how good the policing is and how we reform and restructure the Garda Síochána, we will always have bad people intent on criminality and bad people with no conscience who are prepared to brutalise the young and the elderly for their financial gain. One of the great methods of assistance and benefit to the Garda Síochána is local communities providing information and taking action to prevent crime.

The Seanad adjourned at 3.35 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 5 February 2013.