BY the end of 2012, almost 40 rural garda stations will have closed. Like post offices in rural areas, the closures are slow and steady with more of the same expected in the future.
There is no set number beyond which this policy will end; however the thinking would seem to be, that our current level of 703 stations could be reduced to match Scottish levels of 306.
When Scottish Secretary Kenny MacAspill announced reforms of rural policing, he too was attacked by all for neglecting rural communities. However, his announcement was accompanied by a commitment to enable local authorities to approve police plans for their area.
Our policy is to reduce the number of stations, while stating that the service will be better. No other plan.
One senior garda representative made it quite clear that these closures will seriously impact on rural communities. When coupled with the reducing number of police cars and garda personnel available, we have a situation where most people, particularly those living alone or in isolated rural areas, are feeling extremely insecure.
The estimated savings per police station closed range from as low as €2,000 to €5,000.
However, the cost to rural families in terms of basic insecurity -- and a likely increase in crime -- is not measured.
The downgrading of rural stations over the years was never welcomed by the local communities and using it as an excuse to close them is nonsensical.
What is completely missed by proponents of closure is that communities immediately lose garda presence in their locality. For people, especially the old and vulnerable, this brings increased stress.
Without an alternative plan, it represents, at least, a perception that the local area is now less secure.
This policy also ignores the reality of physical and social isolation and the fact that higher proportions of older people are now living in rural areas. For many there is a deep sense of vulnerability.
The access to community alert and neighbourhood watch programmes is welcome, but they also depend on the availability of key gardai in order to provide advice and assistance.
One of the key advantages to a police presence in rural areas is the fact that gardai will be continually in touch with the community and will enable people to feel that their areas are largely secure.
In Britain, where similar closures have happened, police experts are now worried that the police in rural communities are losing touch and that there will have to be a re-think on this.
Irish Rural Link would argue that garda closures are but a symptom of overall neglect of rural areas. We only ever hear the announcement, never the accompanying plan. We have recommended a serious re-think on policing in rural areas. These include:
• A proper consultative process around rural policing between the Dept of Justice and communities.
• Any garda closure should be matched by a properly constructed community policing plan, to be agreed between the Garda Commissioner and the communities.
• Isolated rural areas be guaranteed a garda presence until such time as adequate police plans are in place and acceptable to the community.
In our current financial crisis, there are many reasons why rural communities feel neglected. The imposition of a policy that is without a visible alternative plan is the worst.
Seamus Boland is Chief Executive of Irish Rural Link