We have debated the issues in this motion on many occasions but it is worth reminding ourselves of the Minister’s announcement that has provoked it. The manner in which the Minister announced to the people the closure of an additional 100 Garda stations on budget day was very regrettable. It was nothing short of cowardly. An e-mail announcing the Minister’s adoption of the Garda policing plan was sneaked out on budget day in the middle of all the news.
At the start of this debate, we must note that the Minister has not taken political responsibility for his decisions. He is responsible for removing Garda stations from communities right across the State against the will of the people and the advice given to him, including by many of his Fine Gael colleagues throughout the country. Many Fine Gael members expressed to me privately their disgust and dismay over his actions. It ill behoves the Minister to say, at any opportunity, these are merely decisions of the Garda Commissioner. The Minister has the draft policing plan given to him and it is within his gift to accept, reject or amend it in any way he sees fit.
This Government views Garda stations as merely unnecessary bricks and mortar, or as a kind of nuisance within communities across many parts of the country, including remote and rural areas. The Minister is seeking to shirk his responsibilities and ignore the benefits that a strong physical Garda presence brings to many communities right across the country.
The Minister must be put on notice that many in his party are against his proposal. He need only turn on any local or national radio station to confirm this. Fine Gael chairmen of joint policing committees and Fine Gael cathaoirligh of county councils are confirming it. Fine Gael councillor Mr. Michael Ryan, Mayor of Templemore, was on the telephone to me almost 15 minutes ago and he was completely beside himself over the direction in which the Minister is taking the policing service and An Garda Síochána.
The Minister fails to recognise that the presence of An Garda Síochána in every community is a significant deterrent. He tries to explain his decision away by asking us to note that there are fewer police stations in Scotland and Northern Ireland, suggesting that we should emulate them. There is no recognition of the fact that our population is dispersed completely differently than those in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Throughout the country, people are suffering from the effects of the withdrawals across a spectrum of services. The cuts are now having an impact on Garda stations. The Government has cut the number of community welfare officer clinics and it is seeking to cut the number of small schools. It has closed banks and is considering credit unions.
It now wants to remove the presence of An Garda Síochána.
The Minister is saying to communities, the elderly and vulnerable that they should contact the Garda on Facebook and Twitter, and that ‘clinics’ will be held. There is no policing or financial argument to back up what the Minister is doing in removing the deterrent that a Garda station represents in every community.
With regard to Garda strength, I have asked the Minister on many occasions to nail his colours to the mast. He says he will reduce the number of members of the force to 13,000. We heard two weeks ago that he has not given An Garda enough to fund its payroll costs this year, when the force has 13,400 members. We are told the payroll budget would only fund a force of 12,000. What is the strength that the Minister has in mind? Is it 13,500, 13,000 or 12,000? Will he not tell us the truth?
The Minister is being put on notice by senior Garda management in the Phoenix Park that it does not have the necessary budget. The Department could not confirm or deny that the Garda Commissioner has an adequate payroll budget to meet the demand this year. Despite this, the Minister will boast openly about the changed rosters. Any garda on the street will tell the Minister that if the force drops below 13,000, the new roster will be completely unworkable and will not function coherently.
When will the Minister be fair to communities and gardaí? Since he is also Minister for Defence, will he explain why he recruited 600 new members to the Defence Forces while refusing point-blank to recommence recruitment to An Garda Síochána and open up Templemore for training?
There are members of the force who can retire at any given point. What will be the position if the strength of the force drops below 13,000, or approaches 12,000 because of an insufficient payroll budget? How low will the Minister allow the strength to drop when communities are vulnerable? He is removing gardaí from communities and asking that we take away their local knowledge and face-to-face contact. He is asking that we allow gardaí operate on some kind of satellite basis. What he is effectively doing is reducing An Garda Síochána to a glorified Neighbourhood Watch scheme in many rural areas and urban parts of Dublin. Despite this, he sits opposite us in complete denial.
The Minister is completely detached from the reality of the people who are feeling vulnerable in their homes throughout the country. The numbers of burglaries, gangland crimes, crimes against the person and cash-in-transit robberies have increased. In spite of this, the Minister likes to quote statistics which I am thankful indicate a trend in the right direction, but all the crimes are affecting people significantly throughout communities.
The Minister may not want to listen to me or my colleagues in my party but he should note that there are no members of his party present tonight to lend him moral support. When we listened to what his party’s members are saying to us right across the country, we concluded that he is pretty much on his own. He is probably the only man in the Fine Gael Party who believes in his agenda.
Any cursory examination of returns to society would indicate to the Minister that he should be investing in An Garda Síochána. Retail Ireland tells us that €850 million per annum is the cost of crime to the country. This is not my figure or that of my party. If the Minister invested in tackling and eradicating crime, he would achieve a positive rate of return, yet he refuses to do so.
There is a crisis of confidence in the Minister. The people are not confident that he can lead the Department of Justice and lead An Garda in the direction it needs to go to deal with crime.
The Minister is in denial about the withdrawal of the face-to-face interaction members of the Garda Síochána bring when they work and live in the communities across this country. He is oblivious to the positive effects of that engagement. He appears to think that withdrawing the services from all these rural communities will accrue some kind of financial saving and lead to a modern police service. Smarter policing is not about taking away face-to-face engagement and dealing with people in a manner that allows on the ground intelligence to be gathered and the police know what is going on in their communities
The Minister has to listen to me, his own people, the Garda Representative Association and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors whose members are telling him exactly what I am articulating. He has to listen to what the Garda Representative Association is saying about the direction in which he is leading the force.
It is not too late for the Minister to resile from his decision to close community Garda stations. Public meetings are taking place throughout the country. Public meetings are taking place tonight in Gorey, County Wexford.
They are taking place throughout the country in opposition to the direction in which the Minister is bringing the Garda Síochána. The Minister needs to listen to his own people on the ground and resile from this decision.