INDUSTRIAL action by gardai over pay cuts could begin as early as next weekend, with rank and file members withdrawing 'goodwill' and working strictly to rule.
The news comes as new figures reveal that the garda overtime budget was slashed last year to €43.9m from €85m in 2011. Now gardai are warning that a "springtime of discontent" could yet force the Government to send in the Army to run prisons.
The threat of chaos in the country's jails would arise if prison officers strike and gardai refuse overtime to take over warders' duties.
Gardai said yesterday that industrial action was now almost certain if, as they expect, the Government imposes further wage cuts on the 'frontline' services, including nurses, prison officers and ambulance and fire-brigade staff.
A national meeting of the 24/7 Frontline Alliance services takes place tomorrow in the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght, Dublin, at which tactics for industrial action will be thrashed out.
Garda sources have warned that if the prison officers go on strike, gardai will not agree to work overtime to run the jails as they have in the past.
The Government would then be faced with the decision to order the Defence Forces to take over the prisons if there was a walk-out by prison officers and if gardai were on a work to rule.
The Prison Officers' Association has yet to decide on any action but sources say there is deep anger at the prospect of further cuts to pay and allowances.
Garda sources reacted angrily to remarks by Justice Minister Alan Shatter at Templemore Garda College on Friday when he dismissed the Garda Representative's motion of no confidence in him and urged representatives to engage in talks, saying they were "better off being inside the tent talking, than shouting outside it".
There was a similar poor reaction to the statement by Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan that gardai were precluded from taking industrial action.
Action being discussed by gardai up to the rank of sergeant involves a strict working to rule. This would include: gardai refusing to use their own cars to travel between stations; no overtime; a refusal to allow personal phones for call-ins and other work-related matters; and a refusal to drive garda cars deemed unfit.
There is also considerable support for a re-run of the 1990s 'blue flu' industrial action in the form of a mass sickness call-in.
The slashing of the overtime budget over the last three years will have a serious impact on the force's capacity to deal with the crime crisis, according to Fianna Fail justice spokesman Niall Collins.
The figures were revealed to Mr Collins in a ministerial response to a Dail question. They show that overtime hours have fallen from 2.5 million in 2011 to just 1.3 million last year.
More than a quarter of the overtime allocated for 2011 was used up in the high-profile visits of Queen Elizabeth and US President Barrack Obama.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr Collins said: "Mr Shatter can find funds when it comes to protecting visiting foreign dignitaries – and rightly so – but he is not half so proactive in fighting his corner when it comes to protecting ordinary citizens."
The murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe, frequent assaults on gardai and personal financial concerns are said by representatives to be driving discontent, anger and disillusionment.
It is clear that An Garda Siochana is losing some of its best and brightest.
One of the force's leading investigators, Det Supt Gabriel O'Gara, head of detectives in the Dublin South Central Division, has given notice of taking early retirement.
Two other leading Dublin detectives have also recently opted for early retirement.
If, as expected, the Government announces pay cuts from seven per cent for rank-and-file public workers and up to 15 per cent at senior levels, gardai expect that significant numbers of senior officers with 30 years' service will opt for retirement this year.
It was claimed in the Seanad last week that a huge swathe of north Co Dublin, home to more than 150,000 people, was left without any garda squad car for more than four hours last Monday.
The allegation that R Division, which covers Malahide , Coolock and Swords, was left without adequate cover was made by Fianna Fail Senator Darragh O'Brien.
Contacted by the Sunday Independent, the Garda Press Office rejected the claim but said it was unable to give details of garda coverage in the area for operational reasons. It insisted there were "significant garda resources" available in the division during that period.
Senator O'Brien told the Seanad on Tuesday: "For four-and-a-half hours, not a single garda car was operational in the entire north Dublin metropolitan area.
"The reason was that the minister would not permit overtime for court appearances."
He demanded that Mr Shatter attend the Dail to explain what happened.