Senior gardai are warning of a looming law and order crisis like that which befell the country during the last Fine Gael-Labour government when a laissez-faire attitude to policing led to the murder of Veronica Guerin.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter should spend a Friday night in the back of an unmarked garda patrol cart in inner-city Dublin and then visit station cells, a garda serving in one of Dublin's busiest stations suggested last week. He was angry at Mr Shatter's performance on Today with Pat Kenny last Tuesday morning in which he maintained that cuts, insisted upon by the troika, would be implemented without seriously affecting garda performance or morale.
"Let him see what it's like through our fellas' eyes. They are battered and spat at. The gougers stand in front of (garda) cars and give us the fingers and fuck us out of it. And there's nothing we can do," the officer said. "I'd like to see him sitting in the back of a squad car for a full eight-hour shift on a Friday night and experience the mayhem. And he should have a look in at a custody suite and see what it's like."
Senior garda sources said Mr Shatter has not, as yet, taken part in any patrolling in a garda car in Dublin city.
He was particularly unhappy at Mr Shatter's response from a listener who suggested the Army could usefully be deployed as a visual deterrent to law-breakers and those involved in anti-social behaviour.
Such a move would "not generate applause" from the Irish public, Mr Shatter said. His view reflects that of his own departmental bureaucracy which has spent much of the last decade introducing 'reforms' which, gardai say, have gone too far in limiting the scope of gardai to police the streets properly.
The garda's comments on the Mr Shatter's remarks on radio were: "The gougers have been let win. Every time the van goes up (a busy shopping street in Dublin city centre) a junkie stands in front of it and stands there abusing us and stopping the van. They do it on purpose. You can get out and take him in for breach of the peace. That'll take two hours in the station and you have been called out to deal with a more serious situation, probably to tackle a bunch of other junkies in (another busy street where addicts congregate during the daytime in Dublin to sell and buy drugs).
Another source pointed that "it is government policy" that at least 900 heroin addicts come into Dublin city centre every day to receive methadone at the 17 clinics in Dublin 1 and Dublin 2. "These clinics are located right in the heart of the city and it brings hordes of addicts into the city centre where they rob and steal and make life awful. I know exactly what that woman was taking about when she said we should have policing like Paris. People want to shop and work in peace in the city centre but that is not government policy. He said something like 'there is a price to pay' if we had policing like the CRS. There is a price for everybody else in this town."
Yet another long-serving detective warned that the current levels of serious crime were such that we are returning to a situation like that which occurred in the mid-Nineties when Fine Gael and Labour were last in power.
In the Eighties and early Nineties, gangland murders were rare with only one or two a year, but by 1995, with the arrival of major gangs like that led by John Gilligan, there were eight murders, an unprecedented level in Irish criminal history. Cocaine was beginning to arrive in substantial amounts.
Also at that time, gardai were warning of serious dangers which Veronica Guerin reflected in her journalism. The eight murders in 1995 led to no convictions and were dismissed at the time as "thieves shooting thieves". Gilligan's gang believed that although there might be an initial burst of outrage, there would be no concerted and substantial garda action against them. The then- Garda Commissioner Pat Byrne unleashed the biggest single anti-gang operation in the history of the force under the leadership of then-Chief Superintendent Tony Hickey, regarded as one of the best detectives and leaders in the history of the Garda Siochana.
"They [the then-coalition government] didn't care about crime either then," he said, "and look what happened. "Fine Gael are like that. They are all talk about being hard on crime when they are out of power. When they get into power they forget. It's just like 1996 now and don't tell me the criminals don't know that." They ignored what was going on and Veronica was murdered. The gougers are running the show out there again."
Last year saw no let-up in the level of gangland assassination, with 19 murders. Gardai in Dublin are predicting that this level will continue. At present there is a potentially major feud looming between 'dissident' republicans and organised criminals in the north of the city and the 12-year-old Crumlin-Drimnagh feud is showing signs of re-igniting. Last year, gardai uncovered a plot to assassinate a Dublin detective and a journalist. It was learned that €30,000 was being offered to carry out either of the assassinations.
Last week, several gardai also disputed Mr Shatter's assertion that there is no widespread morale problem in the force. One said that while there is good camaraderie in some stations, there is a collapse in morale in some others where older officers are becoming highly frustrated as what they see as a lack of will among younger gardai.
One said: "You can have a situation where young guards have complaints in against them. The ones that go out and work get complaints and the other ones see this and say: 'if you do nothing you won't get a complaint'. Once that sets in you are in a bad place. There are brilliant young guards but in some places they are going the wrong way. They'll look the other way because they don't want the hassle."
This guard said that it is now the norm for young criminals, once arrested, to make a complaint to the Garda Ombudsman. While the Ombudsman is investigating no prosecution can be brought against the complainant. Between 2,000 and 3,000 complaints are made against gardai every year, a large but undisclosed proportion by people facing criminal charges. The Ombudsman's office says that about one-third of complaints are dismissed as "vexatious" each year.
At senior ranks in the gardai there are growing concerns that the deep cuts in overtime, alongside the cuts in salary and allowances, are having a deadening effect on morale. This year there is to be a cut of €43m from a salary bill of €956m. Mr Shatter revealed that the total budget of the Department of Justice is €2.2bn annually, of which €1.269bn is spent on the Garda Siochana. The remainder, near €1bn, is spent largely on prisons and courts, though this also includes the running of a civil service bureaucracy which has expanded massively in the past 15 years.
Gardai also challenged the proposal to reduce the force size to 12,000 from its current level of around 14,300. From the late Seventies until the accelerated expansion and recruitment of 2,000 extra gardai under the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat government in 2005, the size of the Force stood at around 12,500. However, as one source pointed out, before the expansion there was "plenty of overtime" for the detection of crime.
"You had 12,500 guards but if you were investigating a crime you could get a double shift. If you have people on double shifts you effectively have double the workforce. The guards were earning good money and crime was being solved." He pointed out that with a de facto freeze for the foreseeable future on overtime, the end effect of a cut-back to 12,000 garda will mean that there will be only half the policing work done.
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Figures provided by Mr Shatter in response to a parliamentary question by Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan recently showed that 3,379 or 27.5 per cent of the force is now female. The garda source pointed out that once women gardai become pregnant they are automatically taken off operational duties and confined to station duty.
Mr Shatter did point out that statistics showed that crime was "down" in 12 categories out of 14. But if the most significant crime in the criminal justice lexicon is gangland assassination – as opposed to "ordinary" or "domestic" homicide – then the 19 gang-related murders in 2012 means that last year was more than twice as bad as 1995. And if the death rate from gang murders in 2009, when there were 31 gang-related murders, is taken as a yardstick, then that year was more than three times worse than 1995.