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Sunday 22 October 2017

TDs in line of fire as death knell sounds for rural life

Jerome Reilly and John Drennan

Much public anger at closure of banks, post offices and garda stations

Government Ministers and TDs will feel the wrath of constituents during their half-term holiday this week, as anger intensifies over the death by a thousand cuts policies that have robbed rural Ireland of garda stations, banks and post offices.

The chief executive of Irish Rural Link, Seamus Boland, yesterday told the Sunday Independent: "What we are looking at now is the tearing asunder of the fabric of rural Ireland and the creation of a rural wasteland where the people simply do not feel safe anymore."

There is now considerable anger among government backbenchers who fear a backlash from constituents at the next election because of the closure of rural garda stations.

On Friday, AIB closed 44 of its bank branches across the country. The State-controlled bank, which has been bailed out by taxpayers, posted a loss of €1.1bn for the first six months of this year.

To return to profitability, AIB says it must shut one in four branches by next year.

Community groups have protested and handed in petitions against branch closures in Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and Limerick.

So far 39 garda stations have closed, but 80 will have been shut by the end of the year, with stations being replaced by occasional "garda clinics" to be held twice a week in hired community venues.

The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (ASGI) says the proposals are "bordering on farcical".

ASGI president John Redmond said that the move would make it more difficult for gardai to operate and does not make financial sense.

"If we're talking about some of the smaller stations which we have flagged based on management figures of €3,000 a year to run, even if you are to hire a community hall for €30 for each of those two occasions per week, you are surpassing the cost that has been there in the past to run a dedicated police station," he said.

Fine Gael backbenchers have warned Justice Minister Alan Shatter that he must give them more details of garda station closures if he expects them to support the latest cutbacks.

Waterford TD John Deasy has raised the issue at the Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC). He said that he and others in the party had "major reservations".

"The minister needs to come before the Fine Gael parliamentary party and tell us the exact details if he wants us to support this," said Mr Deasy.

He said TDs were finding out about shutdowns in their constituencies from local gardai but had yet to hear exact details, adding that any closures had to be properly communicated to worried communities.

Independent TD Willie Penrose warned last week that while the country was doing well in terms of securing foreign investment, the collapse in domestic consumption "is clearly visible in the significant continuous closure of high street premises''.

"I predict that in the next five years many villages throughout the rural heartlands will be left without a shop of any sort -- grocer, butcher, petrol, general provisions," he said.

Mr Penrose added: "I know some of those shop owners. They are important contributors to employment, especially in rural Ireland, offering one, two or three jobs, many of them to housewives. In the past year some of them have recorded losses of €9,000, €10,000 and €12,000, and they are being cross-subsidised by people's other incomes."

And in a radical suggestion the former cabinet minister said rates should be halved or ''devastation will be wrought across rural heartlands" and "we will be shedding crocodile tears when the harm is done".

Fianna Fail justice spokesperson Niall Collins TD has described the revelations regarding Alan Shatter's new national policing strategy as "a complete betrayal of people in vulnerable communities across the country." He also dismissed suggestions of replacement garda 'clinics' and new social media gimmicks as having more to do with a PR strategy than a credible security strategy.

Mr Collins added: "The full scale of Alan Shatter's cynicism is now coming into clear focus. The minister who successfully styled himself as the guardian of garda services in order to achieve power is emerging as the Minister for Justice with the most destructive impact on garda services in the history of the State.

"A security network that was built up over generations, to protect and serve the most vulnerable communities across the country, is being dismantled in a period of months by the man who hysterically condemned relatively modest cuts by the last government and promised more gardai, more investment, more training.

"The way in which this news was broken is evidence of the minister's cynicism. Instead of a clear and honest statement about an additional 80 station closures, we see a leaked briefing with the devastating news of mass closures dressed up in meaningless PR claims about garda 'clinics'."

Sunday Independent

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