John Downing: Garda cutbacks unavoidable but now our safety is threatened
LET'S start with an easy question: Who said this? "It is absolutely vital for the security of this State, to maintain law and order and to provide to the community the protection to which it is entitled, that the garda force is maintained, at a minimum, at its present numbers."
Surely, it was one of those pesky opposition TDs jumping on the bandwagon of recent crime reports and making an unholy alliance with the garda unions? Well, it was not – in fact it was the Justice Minister Alan Shatter.
Aha, we hear you say, surely he said that ages ago when the country was still awash with cash? But you would be wrong again – Mr Shatter's statement was barely two years ago, in December 2010, when it was abundantly clear just how broke we were after three years of recession – though he was heading into election mode.
So, let's start again, with all cards face up on the table this time.
It is the job of the Justice Minister, like all his Cabinet colleagues right now, to make do with dramatically reduced budgets – and that includes cutting back on garda spending. It is the job of the garda representative bodies to defend their members' pay and conditions – and that includes pointing up crime problems and arguing the folly of cutbacks.
But let's move beyond the rhetoric on both sides and look at some basic facts. The Central Statistics Office, independent of either side, tells us that generally speaking crime is down. We know that part of this is one from the 'ill-wind department' – recession means middle-class folk have less disposable money for drugs and the nation's drug dealers are also feeling the pinch.
However, while crime rates are down, the problem is still very much with us. The latest spate of cowardly and vicious attacks on elderly people in Donegal are a stark reminder of this. It only adds to people's concerns about an ongoing spate of crude but systematic robberies by gangs roaming across rural Ireland.
The garda response has been significant through Operation Fiacla, launched 11 months ago. As we show in this newspaper today, it has led to a large number of arrests and charges. But the problem persists and tracking down these highly mobile gangs takes huge garda resources.
The year 2012 and the opening weeks of 2013 show the twin threat of organised gangs and so-called dissident paramilitaries remains real and robust. Against that there have been a number of disquieting revelations about the resources available for policing.
The Government is determined to forge ahead with the closure of up to 100 garda stations. Today we learn that another €10m is to be cut from garda overtime – the cut brings the rate to almost half what it was three years ago and about one third what it was in 2007.
The garda recruitment embargo and continued retirements have depleted overall numbers. When Mr Shatter made his clarion cry in December 2010 the force stood at 14,600 members.
The indications are that it may be around 13,000 in 2013. But again, revelations in this newspaper earlier this month suggested the Justice Department allocation may not be enough to pay more than 12,000 gardai.
The rumblings caused Garda Commissioner Martin Callanan to publicly say he would not like to see the force with fewer than 13,000 gardai. There are suggestions of moving members to other sectors in the public service on secondment to allow the force to live within its budget allocation.
Minister Shatter, who has a difficult job and perhaps should not be held to all his previous rhetoric, still has some serious explaining to do. It is clear that this issue will strike at his Fine Gael party's traditional support base which has always placed emphasis on delivering law and order.
All citizens, especially elderly people everywhere, along with those who live in isolated rural areas and those who live in more volatile urban areas, are entitled to live in safety. Along with that they are entitled to sleep the night with a relative sense of security, based in part on the assurance that their locality is policed.
Delivering that security for citizens and that accompanying sense of security for citizens costs a minimum of expenditure on policing. There is now growing evidence that garda cutbacks are headed into excessive and dangerous territory.