THERE are three issues in the current debate about the future of An Garda Siochana: change, the provision of the best possible service, and the cost.
All are inter-linked, but all are separate, too. It is possible to make progress in one, or two, or all three; and possible to fail in any or all of them, too.
The dreadful murder of Det Gda Adrian Donohoe provides a more than sombre background to this debate. To be fair, no one on any side has tried to exploit it, but it goes to the heart of the matter: how to preserve the unique relationship between the gardai and the Irish public, and how to preserve and improve policing in a fast-changing social and financial environment.
Of the three, the need for change seems the most self-evident, even though the closure of garda stations has caused the most controversy. It seems self-evident because there has been so little change since the foundation of the force in 1922.
Some years ago, one observer claimed that, if a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary returned from the beyond and went into a garda station, everything would be so familiar he would be able to go straight to work.
The little stations being closed are themselves, in many cases, a relic of the RIC, where constables would live in "barracks" 24/7. They were the eyes and ears of the British administration, but no doubt their presence was also a comfort to law-abiding citizens: even more so when they were replaced by the blue uniforms of the gardai.
Still, it is hard to believe that it is the pattern for 21st-Century policing. The Government claims recent changes to garda rosters are also the first since 1922. On this basis, there has already been more change since the financial crisis than in the previous 80 years. New rosters have helped reduce the overtime bill and probably improved garda presence.
The new complaints procedure has not been undermined as many cynics predicted, and can only improve standards in the long run.
But the problem of cost poses a threat to achieving the desired results from change. The small stations may have done little good but the gardai will need more and better equipment if the promised flexible, speedy and efficient service is to be delivered.
One of the depressing things about the Irish public service is that equipment is always last in the queue for cash. In no other European country, in my experience, would one find police vehicles more than five years old, but the same complaint could be made of many of our schools and hospitals.
Like every previous government faced with financial problems, and despite promises to the contrary, this Government has cut capital spending more fiercely than current. It is easier to do, but it is actually more important to maintain and enhance investment if current costs are being reduced.
This leads straight to the gates of Croke Park. No trade union has fought hard to preserve capital spending and none is likely to do so in present financial circumstances but the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors is the first to formally withdraw from the talks.
One can see why. Their members may suffer more than most from changes to overtime and allowances. Like other government workers, they have already had significant cuts, along with the tax rises that apply to all. There is some evidence that gardai as a group may be more in debt than the average middle-income worker.
Nevertheless, their walkout comes before any serious talking or, even more importantly, serious thinking has been done. Taxation has reached what many people feel are the limits of tolerance but revenues are still far short of the cost of public services, even allowing for the recession.
The random definitions of "core pay" do not help. Two-thirds of the €1bn savings being sought will be swallowed up by the payment of automatic increments. The question must at least be asked whether this money could not be better spent maintaining services, even in the form of overtime or relevant allowances.
For the gardai themselves, the harsh truth is that the country cannot afford a force of 14,000 under present arrangements. The same can be said of the health service. The campaign to have new entrants to the public service paid the same as existing staff is potentially as destructive as almost anything the bankers got up to.
Irish police are among the best paid in Europe, if not the best. They are also among the best qualified educationally. It may be time to choose between the allocation of that kind of garda, capable of acting in the important, difficult "office of constable", and the need for boots on the street and the sight of a uniform to reassure and deter.
The unarmed, community-based Garda was a revolutionary change from the RIC. The next revolution is well overdue.