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Sunday 19 November 2017

Fears Army may be needed to patrol streets if gardai go on strike

Justice minister warns Garda strike impact will be dire

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald Photo: Fergal Phillips

Philip Ryan and Maeve Sheehan

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has warned that communities will be left at the mercy of gangland violence and "vile" criminals if 10,000 gardai take the unprecedented step of going on strike.

In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Ms Fitzgerald turned up the pressure on rank and file officers to withdraw their threat to effectively stage four days of strike action next month.

Stock picture
Stock picture

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar weighed in, saying it was "unfair" for gardai to "close a city down or put communities at threat of crime" over a pay dispute.

The ministers were supported by Fianna Fail justice spokesman Jim O'Callaghan, who said: "If they go on strike they will be breaking the law."

He called on Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Ms Fitzgerald to intervene to ensure that gardai "do not drift into unlawful activity".

Only one political party, the hard-left Anti-Austerity Alliance, is so far supporting the proposed industrial action.

Any strike has the potential to disrupt several ongoing covert and overt garda operations and criminal investigations, as well as traffic enforcement.

Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan is expected to sit down this week with chief superintendents and superintendents to draw up contingency plans.

According to security sources, emergency measures are expected to include:

- Drafting in the 1,100 garda reserves, a corps of unpaid civilian volunteers.

- Seeking a "free pass" for members of the elite armed Emergency Response Unit, which has been on the front line of policing the murderous gangland feud in Dublin that has so far claimed 10 lives.

- Concessions may also be sought for Operation Thor, in which teams of detectives target crime gangs that prey on rural dwellers.

- The Army may be called in to help with traffic management and patrolling duties.

Ms Fitzgerald told the Sunday Independent that the country was "in the middle of a gangland war which requires intensive policing" and "an aggressive campaign against burglaries" in rural areas and questioned the consequences of withdrawing from duty.

"The gardai are the front line against crime. If the gardai are not there, communities are vulnerable," she said.

"Nobody has any doubt about the work they do. We have had lots of criticism of them, but the bottom line is that the gardai are our protectors against vile criminal gangs - that's the reality. They are the best protection we have. We want to arrive at a point where we don't have to discuss alternative arrangements."

The minister's intervention comes amid mounting fears that middle-ranking gardai will join their rank-and-file colleagues in striking next month.

The Garda Representative Association (GRA), which represents 10,500 officers, voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action last week in a bid to restore pay to pre-austerity levels, even though gardai are legally barred from striking.

The mass "withdrawal of service" is scheduled to take place from 7am to 7am on four Fridays in November, statistically one of the worst days of the week for road deaths and a day when public order offences and assaults start to peak.

The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI), which represents around 2,000 middle-ranking officers, will vote on industrial action at a special delegate conference on October 17.

Senior security sources said they expect AGSI delegates to support a withdrawal of service. That could result in a mere 210 senior officers - eight commissioners, 42 chief superintendents and 160 superintendents - providing a national police force on days of strike action, thus presenting an unprecedented security threat to the State.

Yesterday, AGSI president Antoinette Cunningham did not rule out the prospect of sergeants and inspectors taking action on the same day as GRA members. She said yesterday that if AGSI votes for industrial action, the executive will "discuss the four days first and foremost" already scheduled by the GRA.

As regards potential disciplinary action, she said: "Whatever the consequences are, I am willing to take that. Discipline in An Garda Siochana can be right up to and including dismissal. If you breach legislation, then there are different sanctions for that."

Ms Fitzgerald will meet AGSI officials for talks on Tuesday.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent yesterday, Ms Fitzgerald was careful not to inflame the tensions and said it "was not helpful to engage in a discussion about alternative policing arrangements".

"I don't want to contemplate a scenario where the gardai are not on the streets and are not preventing, interrupting and prosecuting crime," she said.

"I don't want that scenario and I don't think anyone in the country wants that, but I do understand and the Government understands the difficulties public sectors, including gardai, have been through. I want to find a pathway of agreement to deal with pay restoration."

Ms Fitzgerald said the Government had shown "good faith" in gardai by its investment and recruitment.

"We are in the middle of a gangland crisis. We are in the middle of a very successful and very targeted and aggressive campaign against repeated burglars and we want that to continue," she said.

Sunday Independent

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