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'Guards can't cope as gangs take over'

AN Garda Siochana is unable to cope with rising gangland crime, leaving many in fear of leaving their homes at night, according to a nationwide Sunday Independent opinion poll.

As the force struggles to cope with the exodus of senior officers, two-thirds of those polled said they believed gardai were not up to the task of dealing with gangland crime.

Sixty per cent of respondents said they did not feel safe leaving their homes at night, while more than half of respondents believed that gardai should carry weapons.

The poll findings come at a time of plummeting morale in the Garda Siochana, as senior management have been critically depleted by a rash of retirements.

One assistant commissioner post and 11 chief superintendent positions are vacant across the force, including key positions at the National Bureau of Criminal Investigations -- which investigates organised crime -- the Garda Special Branch and at Garda Technical Bureau.

More than 20 superintendent posts are vacant and scores more at inspector and sergeant level.

Analysis and poll details, page 27

Many senior officers have had to double their workload. For instance, the chief superintendent at the Garda Drugs Squad, Tony Quilter, has also had to take on responsibility for the NBCI, while the chief superintendent in Kerry, John Kerins, is now also responsible for Clare.

Almost 800 gardai left the force last year, twice the number anticipated. The exodus was attributed to members who wanted to protect their pensions from cuts in last year's Budget. An embargo on promotions and recruitment means that senior officers are not being replaced.

The depletion at senior ranks coincides with a failure to curb gangland crime and a dramatic increase in burglaries since the recession took hold. Of 36 gangland murders in Dublin last year, only three have been solved. Burglaries have increased in 20 of the 28 garda divisions.

Fifty-five per cent of respondents said gardai should be armed. Those in favour believed gardai needed to be armed in order to successfully deal with threats they now faced going about their duties.

Of the 66 per cent who believed gardai were not up to the task of combating gangland crime, some believed that the force was under-resourced and wanted to see the Government invest in specialised units to tackle the proliferation of criminal gangs.

Sixty per cent of respondents said they did not feel safe on the streets at night, with some respondents saying they would not leave the house after 8pm. Others said they would only go out in their immediate neighbourhood and would avoid large urban areas after dark.

Despite these fears, an overwhelming 88 per cent of respondents said they felt safe in their homes. Many of those who did not feel safe in their homes -- 12 per cent -- were elderly, had already been the victim of a break-in, or knew of break-ins in the area.

Despite new legislation introduced by Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern, including plans for a national DNA database that can be used in criminal trials, many respondents also perceived a need for more effective laws to take gangs off the streets.

The prospect of gardai going on strike in protest at pay and pension cuts received little support in yesterday's poll. A majority of respondents (60 per cent) said they would not support gardai taking some form of industrial action in protest at the Budget cuts, with 40 per cent pledging their support.

Some respondents said they believed gardai were unique amongst public workers in that they were contractually obliged to forfeit their right to strike. If they were to strike, the country would be left to the mercy of criminals. "They have to take the pain just like everybody else," said a female from the country.

Charles Flanagan, Fine Gael's justice spokesman, claims the Government's failure to replace retiring senior officers is hampering the fight against organised crime.

He said the "flight of top brass meant that when it came to the war against crime the gardai are now like an army that has lost its generals".

Sunday Independent