Thursday, 28 February 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
My home town of Drogheda is in a state of fear this week in a way I have never witnessed. On Monday a man was shot in broad daylight as he sat in his car outside a toy store in a retail park in Drogheda and is now fighting for his life. The town of over 40,000 people, the town I am from and love, has been in the grip of a violent criminal feud for a few months. However, it has the level of policing cover one would expect in a provincial backwater, not in a town or city of the scale and significance of Drogheda. We simply do not have enough gardaí on the streets to fulfil normal policing duties, let alone investigate the ongoing violent criminal feud.
There are six or seven gardaí per unit or shift, as opposed to 12 or 14 in other towns and cities of equivalent size. There is a single marked car policing an area with a population of close to 60,000. The armed support unit that was deployed a number of months ago to Drogheda in response to the criminal feud was withdrawn last week. To add insult to injury, in a decision handed down by top brass last week overtime by gardaí based in Drogheda Garda station was banned. One would not need to be a criminal mastermind to figure out that now is the best time to shoot somebody in Drogheda when there is little policing cover, when existing gardaí are under incredible strain, when there are few vehicles to police the area and when the permanent armed support unit has been withdrawn. It is now back on the streets, albeit probably on a temporary basis, to deal with the fall-out of what happened on Monday.
We immediately need more gardaí permanently based in Drogheda. The Minister for Justice and Equality came to the town in December and it is regrettable that he is not present to answer questions from me. He was happy to visit the Garda station in Drogheda to have his picture taken with the local Fine Gael councillors and Deputy and tell gardaí that what Drogheda wanted Drogheda got. On the one hand, he is having his picture taken in Garda stations, while, on the other, he claims he is not responsible for operational policing matters such as the allocation of gardaí to certain stations. That is simply not good enough.
We were allocated eight probationary gardaí straight out of the Garda College in Templemore last December, while 15 have been withdrawn. We have only been left with an additional three. We need more gardaí permanently. I do not want to hear such nonsense as it is not a matter for the Minister for Justice and Equality to allocate gardaí. He needs to take political responsibility. The people of Drogheda need protection. Gardaí in Drogheda also need protection and support which they are not getting. This is a political issue. It is a matter of accountability. I want to hold the Minister and the Commissioner accountable.
Tomorrow the Taoiseach will make a planned visit to Drogheda. I was not aware of this visit; I heard about it through the media, as I heard about the visit of the Minister to Drogheda through the media. There is a long-standing convention and protocol that Oireachtas Members of all parties are notified of the visit of a Minister or the Taoiseach, but I have yet to receive that notification. I suggest to the Taoiseach that he not come to Drogheda if he does not have more resources for An Garda Síochána.
I thank the Senator for raising this important matter for the people of Drogheda and the wider area of counties Louth and Meath. I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, who, unfortunately, is unable to be here. I know that the Senator, as well as Deputy O’Dowd, has been monitoring the position closely since the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, last updated the House in November on the steps being taken by An Garda Síochána to neutralise the feud. The Taoiseach will visit Drogheda tomorrow to discuss this and other matters directly with members of An Garda Síochána.
The Senator will be aware that when the Minister visited Drogheda Garda station last December, he was very impressed by the robust response that had been put in place by the Garda authorities in the region. There is a dedicated policing operation, Operation Stratus, specifically targeting the ongoing feud. The operation consists of high visibility patrols and checkpoints, days of action and covert policing initiatives, targeting specific parties to the feud. The operations are supplemented by personnel from the regional armed support unit, the drugs unit and the divisional roads policing unit and have resulted in the seizure of considerable amounts of cash, firearms and controlled drugs.
The Minister is aware of the recent incidents that have taken place in the Drogheda area and, of course, the shooting that occurred at the M1 Retail Park earlier this week. The incident on Tuesday is even more shocking when we consider that it occurred during the day, with families and children nearby. In that context, the Garda Commissioner has publicly spoken about issues such as protecting the most vulnerable and highlighted that his priority is having a policing model that will provide the best outcomes for communities.
The distribution of Garda resources is constantly monitored. A particular distribution model is used that takes into account all relevant factors, including population, crime trends and overall policing needs at local level. The Minister has been informed that on 31 January, the latest date for which figures are readily available, the strength of the Louth division was 340, with 118 gardaí assigned to the Drogheda Garda district. There are also 22 Garda reserves and 33 civilians attached to the division.
The Minister wants to be very clear that this situation will not be allowed to continue. There has been a sustained and concerted effort on the part of An Garda Síochána to bring those engaged in the feud to justice. I know that the Minister and the Garda Commissioner are dedicated to tackling gang-related violence in Drogheda and ensuring the safety of all citizens in the community and the wider area.
In the 20 years I have been in public life I have never been more frustrated as I have been this week. With others, I am trying to support the work of An Garda Síochána to protect the people of my home town, about which I care deeply. I have never witnessed such angst and frustration in the area. My phone has been hopping since Monday. I know of people who witnessed the event in a busy shopping area on Monday and they are absolutely traumatised.It is inevitable that retaliatory attacks and reprisals will take place. With the limited resources they have, gardaí in Drogheda have been working extremely hard to keep a lid on this violent feud. It is only a matter of time until an innocent victim is caught up in it and shot and until we have the first fatality of this feud. I have nothing but respect for the Minister of State and the work he does but he is not the Minister for Justice and Equality. That Minister should be here today to answer questions from me on behalf of the people I represent. It is deeply regrettable that he is not here. As I said earlier, I do not want to personalise this. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, was happy to come to the barracks in Drogheda to speak to members of An Garda Síochána and advise them that resources would be made available. Those resources were only temporarily available; they were pulled. It is only now that the armed support unit is on the streets of Drogheda again. I fear that a lid cannot be kept on this any longer. We need resources in Drogheda now.
I understand the Senator's frustrations. I am not the Minister for Justice and Equality or a Minister in that Department. Senator Nash was a Minister of State and knows that when Ministers are not available, Ministers of State step in. That is what I have done this morning in relaying the response of the Minister for Justice and Equality. I hear the Senator's concern and I will relay it to the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. I would point out, however, from my own regional experience, that we have had not dissimilar situations in other parts of the country. There have been concerted efforts by members of An Garda Síochána, supported by local authorities, State agencies, the Government and others in other parts of the country where there were particular feuds and difficulties that have been brought under control. The concerns the Senator has relayed are very serious, particularly in respect of the community he represents.
I will relay to the Minister for Justice and Equality the concerns the Senator has voiced today on behalf of the people of that part of County Louth and the wider east Meath area. I apologise the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is not available. He had prior commitments and engagements. The Senator knows from his own time as a Minister of State that this often happens. Rather than deferring the issue, the decision was taken to discuss it in the Seanad today, which is important, with me as a Minister of State first relaying the response of the Minister for Justice and Equality, who is taking this issue seriously, and, second, relaying the Senator's concerns back to the Minister.