Saturday 1 October 2016

Niall Collins: Shatter must help our thin blue line

Niall Collins

Published 13/01/2013 | 05:00

Since its foundation, An Garda Siochana has served the Irish people with great distinction. It has pursued crime and lawlessness with relentless vigour and determination.

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There were times when it had to defend the State against forces which wanted to bring it down. Its resilience and fortitude were tested on numerous occasions to the point where the ultimate sacrifice was demanded. Throughout it all An Garda Siochana has stood by the rule of law and the Constitution. Careful to avoid even a hint of political bias or involvement, the force has justifiably won the confidence and respect of the public it serves.

Today, An Garda Siochana is entering into a period of great challenge and uncertainty. The actions and words of the present Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and his Government colleagues would appear to indicate that the gardai are to be regarded as just another arm of the public service, with little or no recognition of their unique role in society. Garda cutbacks are to be measured as merely a percentage of overall Government expenditure and no special plea will be entertained.

It matters little that this is no way to run a demand-led service. It is indeed fortunate that previous Governments did not adopt such a cavalier attitude to the forces of law and order. One shudders to think of what the outcome may have been for the country if the special and unique role of An Garda Siochana had not been recognised by all previous administrations.

The last 20 years, in particular, have witnessed massive investment and support for the force. The strength of the Garda rose from 8,500 in the Eighties to a high of more than 14,500 when the last Government left office. Since his appointment, Mr Shatter has quietly and systematically worked to reverse some of that hard work. The number of members in the force has fallen to 13,430 and is set to fall to 12,000 by year's end. The revolving prison door is also back in full swing so that dangerous criminals who have not served their sentences are again stalking our neighbourhoods in the knowledge that even if they are caught reoffending they will be out again soon.

Garda resources are drying up. Community garda stations are being closed down. We are the only country in Europe without new police recruits. Even old patrol cars are not being replaced. Parts of the country are turning into "lawless bad lands", to use the minister's own words.

It has got to point where the president of the Garda Representative Association, at its annual conference felt obliged to make the same accusation to Mr Shatter which John O'Donoghue made to Nora Owen back in the mid-Nineties, "soft on crime, soft on the causes of crime, and soft on the proceeds of crime".

We know that the budgetary situation is difficult. We know that Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin is more concerned about Labour than Fine Gael.

But we also know that it has been acknowledged internationally that there is a strong relationship between the size of police forces and crime rates.

Accordingly, the Irish people will pay dearly for Mr Shatter's inability to fight his corner in Government. Indeed senior garda management have warned the minister that they just can't provide a proper policing service if the shortfall in their budget stands at €35m. Shameful and all as that is, there can be no excuse for Mr Howlin's and Mr Shatter's cloak-and-dagger approach. Mr Howlin, who has been severely critical of gardai in the past and who entered into a surreptitious agreement with Mr Shatter to provide wages for only 12,000 gardai rather than 13,000 this year.

It was left to garda management to discover this for themselves. Never in the history of the State has such contempt been shown for the forces of law and order. Never in the history of the State has a Minister for Justice sought to wash their hands of responsibility for garda numbers.

As one prominent security journalist wrote during the week: "It's certainly no way to treat a police force that has served the people well since its foundation."

As both ministers involved grow ever more detached and self congratulatory, real people with real fears are going to be hurt and in some cases hurt badly. Older and more vulnerable people, faced also with the news this week that their personal alarm service is being cut, feel ever more isolated.

Faced with reasonable and constructive criticism, Mr Shatter went into denial.

He washes his hands of responsibility and leaves it to the gardai themselves to explain how they only have sufficient funds to pay 12,000 members of the force this year. True to form, Mr Howlin headed for the hills.

The Government could not be dismantling the country's security infrastructure at a worse time. It is a proven fact that as the income gap grows wider, statistics for child mortality, mental illness, teenage pregnancy, crime, and imprisonment all tend to increase. Mr Shatter must go back to the cabinet table and start doing what he promised us he would do. He should start by reasserting himself.

He should tell Mr Howlin that investment in the gardai needs to be looked at differently. Tell him that in the hierarchy of rights the right to life and personal safety is a superior right.

The minister is making the wrong choices.

For the sake of community cohesion and safety across the country, I ask him to think again and change direction before the work of generations is permanently undone.

Niall Collins is a TD for Limerick and Fianna Fail's Justice and Equality spokesman

Sunday Independent

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