Tuesday 6 December 2016

Garda strikes could leave just 210 to police entire country

Management to seek 'free pass' for armed specialist unit

Published 02/10/2016 | 02:30

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald Photo: Caroline Quinn
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald Photo: Caroline Quinn
Action: Gardai set to strike Photo: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

Plans by rank-and-file gardai to stage four 24-hour "strikes" next month on one of the busiest days in the crime calendar could leave just 210 officers in charge of policing the entire country during the work stoppages.

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The mass "withdrawal of service" is scheduled to take place from 7am to 7am on four Fridays in November - statistically one of the worst days of the week for road traffic fatalities and a day when public order offences and assaults start to peak.

Last week, 10,500 members of the Garda Representative Association voted overwhelmingly in support of what is effectively strike action, even though they are legally disbarred from doing so.

It is no doubt a mark of the ordinary garda's desperation, claiming they are at the end of their tether over successive austerity cuts to their pay. But given the serious blow to state security, it is also a massive gamble.

Should the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) vote to join the strike action at its delegate conference later this month, the impact would result in an unprecedented depletion of the force.

The association, which represents around 2,000 middle ranking gardai, is expected to vote on a motion to withdraw services at its conference on October 17. That would leave 160 superintendents, 42 chief superintendents and eight commissioners, including the chief, Noirin O'Sulllivan, manning the force accordiing to garda figures.

However, the garda reserve - a force of 1,100 unpaid civilian volunteers - would most likely be deployed.

Sources suggested that if the ballot is passed, the AGSI could consider scheduling its industrial protests on alternate days to the GRA.

The potential for opportunistic crime has caused serious disquiet amongst garda management. The removal of 10,000 members of the force from their policing duties could potentially disrupt several ongoing covert and over policing operations.

They include the ongoing armed patrols in Dublin aimed at preventing further casualties in the murderous feud between the Kinahan drug cartel and the Hutch gang - a feud that has claimed nine opportunistic murders to date.

Operation Thor, the dedicated garda team that targets crime gangs involved in rural burglaries, would also face serious disruption, according to garda sources. The Operation played a major part in cutting burglaries by 26pc, according to last week's figures.

"If the gangland feud escalated on the day of the strike, if someone was to be taken out, it would have huge ramifications on for gardai and for the government," said one senior Garda source.

The Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, has been taking a softly, softly approach, insisting that her door is open for talks. But at Garda Headquarters, contingency planning for a 24-hour 10,000 strong no-show has already begun.

The GRA said last week that emergency services will be still be available, but gardai won't be answering calls, won't be on the beat and won't be interacting with the public.

Garda management are likely to ask the GRA to grant a "free pass" to gardai working in critical units, including the armed Emergency Response Unit and the Special Detective Unit.

Fire and ambulance services will no doubt be drafted in, according to senior sources. It is also likely that the Irish Army may be asked to help, even though soldiers don't have powers of arrest.

The GRA has chosen to withdraw services on statistically one of the worst days of the week for road traffic deaths. Figures from the Road Safety Authority show that almost half of all road deaths happen on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and in 2014, more than a quarter of all fatal traffic accidents were on a Friday, and most at rush hour.

According to one source, the industrial action would be a serious blow to state security. "There have to be gardai available to deal with road traffic incidents. There is a bigger volume of cars on the roads on Fridays. Crimes like public order and assaults also tend to peak over weekend periods."

The vote for a withdrawal of services by Garda Representative Association is unprecedented in the force. The last time rank-and-file gardai staged an industrial protest was the so called "Blue Flu" in 1998, when they effectively took mass sick leave to get around the legal ban on gardai going on strike.

A spokesperson for the minister Frances Fitzgerald declined to say whether she will dock the pay of striking gardai, should the industrial action go ahead. The Garda Representative Association executive is to meet this week to tease out the details of the industrial action, and whether there will be demonstrations, marches or pickets.

The GRA wants restoration of full public service pay before the imposition of austerity cuts.

It wants an end to what it calls the "two-tier" system which means that new recruits to An Garda Siochana don't get the same allowances as their more established colleagues. Its members aren't happy either with additional working hours.

They are pleading that theirs is a special case; they do a dangerous, life-threatening job but unlike other workers they are "denied the civil right" to strike, their new recruits are among the worst paid public servants and they have no rights when it comes to negotiating their pay as a trade union would.

In reality, new garda recruits start on a salary of €23,171 that rises to €45,793 after 19 years. For many recruits, the salary is boosted by a series of allowances that could add €5,800 a year to their earnings.

The GRA, along with the teachers union, the ASTI, were the only two public sector associations who refused to sign up to the Lansdowne Road accord, the forum for government public sector pay policy which came into effect in January.

As a result, they faced the financial penalty of having their increments frozen.

Sunday Independent

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