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We're all in the horrors as we cower from the axe

THEY are closing the garda college and opening a casino in Co Tipperary. "What the Government is doing is gambling," says one critic. But it's not gambling on horses. It is, as Damien McCarthy of the Garda Representative Association, puts it, "gambling on the fact that if they reduce garda numbers they'll save money".

You could not buy the kind of sympathetic publicity that Templemore got on RTE's Morning Ireland last week. If every place and group threatened by Government cutbacks had as many minutes of prime radio time to plead their case, they would be doing well. And if whoever shouts loudest has the best chance of changing the Government's mind, we are in for a lot of noise.

Every group and county in Ireland has some special case to plead. Not this airport but that should be Government-funded. Not this hospital but that should be closed. And, in a world of multi-seat constituencies, few backbenchers are eager to defend the public purse or national objectives in the teeth of local opposition.

Not that even the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, was hurrying on to Morning Ireland to explain the ban on new garda recruits in Templemore. He was engaged elsewhere that day, newly recruiting (without competition) an eminently suitable Fine Gael donor as Ireland's "confidential recipient" of complaints about garda corruption.

Shatter's absence from RTE left the field open to Templemore traders and gardai to complain of the economic and social impact of the decision.

The minister later rounded on RTE. In a remarkable attack on the professional reputation of one of RTE's main reporters, he reportedly told Templemore councillors that Crime Correspondent Paul Reynolds "constantly and consistently engages in tabloid sensationalism of the worst kind".

Shatter later apologised for his outrageous comments. Before last week's outburst and row, he had been doing very well as Minister for Justice.

Pubs, butchers, clothing and footwear shops were lined up by Reynolds on Morning Ireland and represented as victims of the ban on new garda recruits. It is "devastating news for the people of Templemore", said one inhabitant.

There is going to be a lot more devastating news for a lot more people in the near future. That is what happens when billions of euro in public money is diverted to pay off the loans of reckless banks.

The Government is already wavering under pressure. An announcement that Ireland could no longer afford its new nursing home scheme for the elderly was quickly followed by the surprise discovery of a spare €62m so that the Fair Deal could last a little longer.

Here and then there we are hearing of "reviews" before any decision is taken. Galwegians are mobilising to ensure that their airport is not the one to lose public subsidies. And with every hesitation, it will become harder for the Government to wield its axe.

And only as its axe is wielded will the full realisation of our folly dawn on us. We will bitterly regret the massive wasteful expenditure that, even now, nobody in power is prepared to explain by tracing where the billions actually went. Even the Taoiseach himself last week was unsure about what is happening behind the facade of Nama.

And then that pillar of political probity, Michael Lowry TD, appeared triumphant alongside his fellow promoters of a project that seems straight out of Las Vegas. As a full-size replica of the White House and a new gambling palace open their doors to the Tipperary countryside, the doors of Tipperary's Garda Training College will be shut to new recruits.

"There is only one significant growth industry in any recession and that is crime," warned John Redmond, Deputy General Secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, last week. But even the gardai themselves were infected by spending mania.

For, during his sympathetic report from Templemore last week, RTE's Paul Reynolds visited the nearby site of a proposed garda firearms and advanced driving centre, a "centre of excellence" just 10km outside the town. More than €5m had already been spent on it, he reported. Trouble is, the centre has not actually been built.

The price that we are about to pay for such folly is only beginning to be felt. With no new recruits, and senior officers retiring, the gardai cannot do the same job that they did before. And that goes for most public services.

If the Government and unions push ahead with real structural reforms, then some of the impact of cutbacks on the public will be mitigated. But, so far, crude cuts in staff and pay appear to be mainly what reform is about, and such crude cuts may make the impact of cutbacks worse. Without a clear ground-plan, we could end up losing some of the most experienced public servants while retaining the worst public service practices.

There are too few signs of meaningful structural change. The reappointment of a Seanad along unashamedly political lines, and jobs as ever for suitable boys, is draining whatever credibility this new Government has.

No citizen is going to escape the negative effects of diverting billions from the State's purse to bankers and their backers. Whether by way of bumpier roads, overcrowded classrooms, hospital waiting lists or fewer gardai to fight crime, it is not just the people of Templemore who are about to count the cost of Ireland's busted boom.

Sunday Independent