Sunday 17 February 2019

'Gardaí have understandably reached the end of their tether'

Justice Minister and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald at a Garda Passing Out Parade in Templemore, Co Tipperary in June 2016. Picture credit; Damien Eagers
Justice Minister and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald at a Garda Passing Out Parade in Templemore, Co Tipperary in June 2016. Picture credit; Damien Eagers
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

With only days to go before more than 12,000 gardaí go on an unprecedented strike, a realisation of the chaos that now looms has only just dawned on the Government.

Speaking to one newspaper yesterday, one unnamed representative said there was "a new awareness" within Government of the seriousness of the situation the country faces.

Fantastic, isn't it? The Garda Representative Association (GRA) announced four-days of strike action on September 28 and, more than a month later, the Government is finally starting to take them seriously.

Did they think they were bluffing? Is that why ministers are only now beginning to get nervous about the fact that thousands of gardaí are about to walk off the job?

This cavalier attitude to Garda complaints, exemplified in an industrial relations policy of 'it'll be alright on the night', goes a long way to explaining the fury among members of the force that has led us to the current sorry impasse.

As far back as 2010, when the theme of a GRA conference was "angry, betrayed and disillusioned", anger has been simmering. The past four years of government inaction, as Garda representative bodies fought to be treated on a par with other public sector unions, has caused that anger to boil over.

Throughout this time, as pay was slashed, staffing levels eroded and working conditions deteriorated, gardaí have been denied the basic tools required to do their jobs.

Take Sergeant Michael Lyons, stationed in Kinsale Garda Station, for example. In 2011, he searched the home of a man suspected of being in possession of child porn. When he arrived at the address, the suspect admitted his guilt and handed over a USB stick, along with a laptop and hard drive, which contained nearly 400 images of child porn.

Despite this immediate admission of guilt, it took five years for the case to come to court because of a chronic backlog in the Computer Crime Investigation unit.

"I sent the computer equipment up to the unit for analysis and wrote to them on a quarterly basis but there's such a backlog you just have to take your place in the queue and it's taking four to five years for the reports on what was found on the equipment to be generated," Sgt Lyons told Cork Circuit Criminal Court last week.

This is a case that should have been a slam-dunk, processed through the courts without any delay. Instead, Sgt Lyons had to chase it up continually over a five-year period.

Judge Sean Ó Donnabháin commended Sgt Lyons for his professionalism in pursuing the case so diligently for so long, and said the delay was "inexcusable". It may be inexcusable, but it's not unusual.

Earlier this month, Dublin Circuit Court heard it had taken nearly four years to charge a man who was caught with 25 videos and 80 child porn images because of the backlog.

Back in 2012, Judge Thomas O'Donnell told Castlebar Circuit Criminal Court he was "flabbergasted" when he learned it was taking three years to process cases of child porn because of delays at the unit.

Imagine the frustration that gardaí investigating this kind of crime must experience. Knowing that suspects who have admitted being in possession of images of child abuse will not face justice for years because the computer crime unit is chronically under-resourced.

It must be especially galling to listen to politicians assure the public that gardaí are well resourced, when you know that routine analysis of computer equipment now takes five years.

In any other profession, if delays like this were hampering day-to-day operations to such an extent then something would be done about it. However, gardaí are simply expected to keep quiet about their obsolete equipment and low staffing levels and get on with the job without complaining. They must do this despite being under constant pressure to increase crime detection rates and close cases swiftly.

For years, successive governments have abused the fact that gardaí are legally precluded from striking to unilaterally impose cuts and change work practices with little consultation.

When the Haddington Road Agreement was being negotiated, garda representatives were not allowed join other unions at the negotiating table. Instead, they were annexed in a little room and occasionally updated on progress. Eventually, they walked out, disgusted at their treatment.

In the intervening period, gardaí have attempted on numerous occasions to compel the government to treat them as they would any other union and allow them access to the State's industrial relations machinery, to no avail.

This is the reason the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) were furious when some Government representatives intimated over the weekend that gardaí now have access to the Work Relations Commission. They don't. They were granted temporary access on Friday in a last-ditch effort to avoid Friday's strike.

If the Government had listened to garda complaints and concerns for the past number of years, instead of ignoring them and allowing grievances to fester, then a strike would not now be looming.

If it does go ahead, it will be because gardaí have understandably reached the end of their tether.

Irish Independent

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