Address by Mr Alan Shatter TD, Minister for Justice Equality and Defence to the 2012 Annual Conference of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors
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Mr President, distinguished guests, delegates, ladies and gentlemen:
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak at your conference again this year, and for your kind words of welcome. It doesn’t seem that long since I addressed your conference last year in Limerick, but a lot has happened since then.
On a personal note, Mr President, a number of members have retired from the Force in that period, including your immediate predecessor, Aidan O’Donnell. I want to record my thanks and appreciation to them for their dedicated service to the State and I wish them well in retirement.
Croke Park Agreement
Mr President, you said that the main issue for you this year is the new roster, and I completely agree with you. Not only is it important for your members, but it is a major development for the Garda Síochána as an organisation, and a hugely important milestone in the Croke Park process of reform.
I agree also that there has been unfair criticism of Croke Park, and that not enough recognition has been given to the progress that has been made. But the best way to answer the critics is to show that real reform is happening, and the new Garda rosters are a perfect example of that.
The reason why new rosters and other reforms are necessary is that we must make more efficient use of resources right across the public service. The new rosters are designed to provide a better match between the availability of Garda members on duty and fluctuating demand for policing services. The new rosters will also respect the EU Working Time Directive and safeguard the health and welfare of members, giving a better work-life balance. So this has the potential to be a win-win reform, with better use of resources and better conditions for members.
Of course any such fundamental change is bound to raise issues both for management and members, but I know that there has been intensive engagement between Garda management and the Associations to resolve these, and I am sure that any remaining teething problems can be resolved during the nationwide piloting of the rosters starting this month.
I know that an IT system will be needed to support the new rosters, and I understand that work on the development of a comprehensive system is well advanced and that the project is being dealt with as a high priority. In the meantime, Garda management have informed me that the interim IT system will not be restricted to spreadsheets, but will also have the facility to provide reports to supervisors for resource management purposes.
I also want to acknowledge the constructive engagement of your Association and the other Associations in the negotiations of the new rosters. I know that it has taken huge effort and commitment on everyone’s part to get to this point, and I want you to know that this is very much recognised.
Of course, this is part of what must be an ongoing process of reform. Now I know that some of you might wonder when there will be an end to continuing change, but in fact, when you stand back and look at what is happening under Croke Park, the changes under way in the Garda Síochána are actually quite sensible and reasonable:
- It makes sense to reform the rosters so that more Garda members are on duty at peak times;
- It makes sense that there should be a better system of compensating Garda members for malicious injuries, so that legal costs are reduced, while members get quicker payments;
- It makes sense that all Garda members are now paid electronically, as it is a more efficient system and more convenient for members;
- It makes sense that there should be more civilian support staff in the Force, so that Garda members are free to do what they have been so highly trained to do – police work.
I recognise as well that not all of this is simply for you to do. We must all play our part. On Garda compensation, for example, I will be bringing forward draft legislation very soon to give effect to the proposals. As regards increased civilian support, I recognise that the recruitment embargo is an obvious obstacle. But even here, Croke Park can help. A key element of Croke Park is the need for flexibility, for example in relation to redeployment. Already work is underway to identify where staff in other areas of the public service might be available to work for the Garda Síochána. We already know that this can work really well – just look at the Garda Information Services Centre in Castlebar. I want to see more examples of that.
I believe that these reforms would be worthwhile at any time, but of course there is a context in which they are taking place. We must reduce the cost of the public service and increase its efficiency. The reality is that, even after the reductions in public service pay, even after the pension-related deduction, even after the reductions in the budgets of most public sector bodies, and even after tax increases such as the rise in VAT, the gap between ordinary Government income and expenditure this year will be around €16 billion. So while much has been achieved, more needs to be done to restore balance to the public finances and reduce the deficit to a sustainable level.
Every proposal for expenditure needs to be seen in that context. So while of course I understand, Mr President, your wish to see greater investment in Garda stations, such investment must come from within available resouces. As you know, capital expenditure on new Garda stations comes from the budget of the Office of Public Works. That budget has been reduced significantly for 2012 and subsequent years. This in turn has had an effect in relation to projects that have been identified for development, including the provision of new stations at Kevin Street and in Wexford. The reality of the situation is that proceeding with these projects will depend on the availability of funding from the Vote for the Office of Public Works.
Of course, we shouldn’t forget that, even within these constraints, there is still investment in the Garda estate. New stations have recently been provided in Ballincollig, Co. Cork and Castleisland Co. Kerry. In addition, substantial refurbishment works were carried out at Mountjoy station and completed during the third quarter of 2011. It is also the case that an extensive set of other Garda projects is under way around the country, including the construction of a new cell block at Coolock and the provision of new accommodation at Carrick-on-Shannon and Roscommon.
There is no doubt, however, that the constraints on funding will mean not only prioritising investments, but also a rationalisation of the Garda station network. As you know, the Garda Commissioner proposed the closure of 31 stations this year, as well as the formal closure of a further 8 stations which were already non-operational, some for many years. The Commissioner made his proposals after a careful analysis of each case, and concluded that the result would be greater efficiency in delivering a policing service in the areas concerned. I simply cannot understand this being characterised as "disgraceful". Instead, I think it would be wrong to maintain things exactly as they are, simply because that is always the way they have been, no matter how inefficient that would be. Can anyone plausibly argue that we absolutely need 703 Garda stations in such a small country? Can there really be no reduction whatever in the number of stations this State started out with, even though transport, communications and technology have been transformed beyond recognition since then?
Of course I understand local attachment to Garda stations, but what matters for communities is making the best use of Garda resources so that the best possible service is provided within the available resources. If that means more Garda members available for patrol rather than keeping a station open, then we should welcome that where the evidence supports it.
Mention was made of public money spent on stations which are to close, in particular Whitehall Garda station. These are buildings which are in public ownership and will be available for use by other State entities or for community purposes, so of course it was right to carry out essential maintenance.
I expect that there will be further closures of Garda stations in 2013 as part of a process of ensuring that resources are used wisely and that members are released for frontline duties. The Garda Commissioner will be assessing the case for further rationalisation in the light of the operational requirements of the Garda Síochána, and will make his proposals in the draft policing plan for 2013.
In the same way, can anyone really argue against the other proposal of the Garda Commissioner to close the public counter of some Dublin stations between 10 at night and 8 in the morning? If people need the Gardaí in the middle of the night it is usually for an emergency, and they dial 999. There are relatively few members of the public who need to call personally to a Garda station at that hour, and even then there will still be other Garda stations open to them in Dublin. I think most people would think this a sensible move, which will not in any way reduce services. In fact it should improve services, as it will free up Garda members for operational duties. This is the type of reform that we need.
I wish to address the concerns you have expressed over the escape of Martin McDermott from Loughan House, having been sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for the manslaughter of Garda Gary McLoughlin.
I take what happened exceptionally seriously. A report on the background to the mistaken transfer of Martin McDermott to Loughan House was completed and I published the report within 2 weeks of his escape and capture. I have directed that all necessary steps are taken to ensure that a mistake of this nature never happens again.
The Prison Service has acknowledged that it was wrong for such a prisoner, given the gravity of the offence he committed and his background, to have been transferred from a closed prison to Loughan House. The Director of the Prison Service gave evidence last week to an Oireachtas committee and issued a full and unreserved apology for what happened.
A fundamental and very serious error was made in the Prison Service. This was a human error, and the Director General of the Prison Service has assured me that steps have been taken so that such an error is not made again in respect of any person responsible for the death of a member of the Force, or indeed a member of the public. There has been full transparency shown, a comprehensive explanation given, and remedial action taken. In the future it will not be possible for a prisoner convicted of such offence to be transferred from a closed to an open prison without the consent of the Director General of the Irish Prison Service.
As you are aware, Martin McDermott is currently in custody in Northern Ireland, serving a 4 month sentence for assaulting a PSNI Officer, resisting arrest and criminal damage. He will be subject to a European Arrest Warrant in due course.
I would like to again express my deep regret at the upset and distress this episode has caused the family, colleagues and friends of Garda Gary McLoughlin.
Mr President, I recognise the importance of proper transport in the provision of a modern policing service. An order for new cars has recently been placed and I understand that these vehicles are being rolled out. In addition, a tendering process is under way to put in place a contract which will allow for the provision of further Garda vehicles. This is a matter that will be pursued in the light of the Commissioner's operational priorities and – there is no escaping this - the availability of financial resources.
We should however keep this in perspective. In 2007 there were just over 2,200. There are now just over 2,600 cars. The reality is that there are now more Garda cars than at the height of the boom when it was mistakenly believed that the State’s finances were sustainable.
I do hear what you say in relation to the decommissioning of vehicles, but this is really a matter for professional and technical judgement. My understanding is that patrol cars are taken out of service when they reach 300,000 Km on the basis of technical directions from the manufacturers. This is done to ensure the safety of both Garda personnel and members of the public, but I am sure that Garda management will keep this under review in accordance with the best technical advice.
Availability of doctors
Mr President, I also hear what you say about the need for improved medical cover. I understand from Garda management that work is well advanced on the introduction of new arrangements which will standardise the delivery of medical services across the country for persons in Garda custody, and in other situations where such services are required. The objective is to ensure a consistently high quality of service which will include a more efficient system of engaging medical practitioners. This is clearly an important issue, and I will follow developments with interest.
"Warning" on visits to Ireland
I have to say that I am disappointed that reference should be made at this conference to a simplistic and inaccurate assessment from abroad of the effectiveness of the Garda Síochána and the morale of its members. Of course budgetary constraints and other workplace issues are bound to cause some tension, whether in the Garda Síochána, the wider public service or the private sector. But there is simply no basis for anyone, at home or abroad, to suggest that the Garda Síochána does not operate to the highest level.
Just look at the crime statistics for 2011, which show reductions in 11 of the 14 crime categories. Burglaries and related offences are the most obvious exception to this, but even here Garda operations are now targeting these offences. There are a number of factors underlying this welcome reduction in serious crime, but a key factor has been the Garda Síochána’s outstanding success in tackling drug and gangland crime.
And of course we all remember the hugely successful security operation undertaken by the Garda Síochána prior to and during the visits last year by the Queen and the US President. The professionalism of the Garda Síochána in meeting these challenges is a source of pride for us all. These are achievements to be celebrated and for which there is public recognition and respect.
So I don’t understand anyone issuing, or repeating, so-called "warnings" about visiting this country, or about the capacity of the Garda Síochána. Ireland is a friendly and welcoming country for tourists. It is relatively safe, with a comparatively low rate of crime, and it has an outstanding police force. Let’s get that message out there, and let’s stand up for our achievements and capacities.
Mr President, I hope that I have touched on most of the main points you raised, and I hope that I have been able in some way to respond to these and explain the Government’s perspective.
I hold the Garda Síochána in the deepest respect, and I want the best for it. Even with the constraints on Government expenditure, I will continue to argue for a fair share of available resources for the Garda Síochána, not just in budgetary terms but more broadly. I know, for example, the pressure that vacancies at management and supervisory ranks can bring. I was glad that in February I was able to secure sanction for the filling of 2 Assistant Commissioner, 8 Chief Superintendent and 23 Superintendent posts, as well as all consequential vacancies down to and including the rank of sergeant. I will continue to address this issue, particularly now that we know the post-February level of retirements.
While we must accept the budgetary realities, where we can make a difference is by changing the way we do things, by being leaner and more efficient, by reform and improvement. I have absolutely no doubt that the Garda Síochána, and your members, can rise to this challenge. In the policing of last year’s visits of Queen Elizabeth and President Obama, you reminded the whole country of your professional excellence, and in the new rosters starting this month you are showing your commitment to reform, and your ability to deliver reform. In doing this, you will have my support and, I believe, the support of the public you so loyally serve.
Mr President, I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to address you this evening, and I wish you all every success in your conference.