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Arresting policing decline

Two gardai at a checkpoint talk to a car driver

Arresting policing decline

Heart of the matter
Conor Ganly

Life in the countryside might seem idyllic to city dwellers but the Padraig Nally case has revealed that security in rural Ireland cannot be taken for granted.
Attacks on elderly people are commonplace and robberies by armed gangs are on the increase. The Courts are clogged up with public order offences while many crimes will not get reported.
Inevitably crime puts pressure on policing and choices have to be made when resources are limited. Nationally, Dublin, Cork and Limerick get prioritised. Locally, Mayo’s big towns are increasingly sucking in Garda resources. As the populations of Castlebar, Ballina, Claremorris and Westport expand policing resources will inevitably be stretched elsewhere.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell confirmed recently that there are 273 gardaí stationed in the county of Mayo. But this is roughly the same number in the ranks as there were six years ago.
When measured against population growth the policing situation looks in need of urgent attention. Mayo’s population has risen by 5 per cent to more than 230,000 without a matching increase in garda numbers. In simple terms this means that there is on average one garda to 840 people in the county.
Existing policing structures may not lend themselves to a good balance of rural and urban policing. The expansion of community policing was recommended by a national task force in 2004 but to date there are just two initiatives in place.
Competing priorites set for the Mayo Garda Division may also distract from a special focus on rural areas. The Mayo Garda Division’s ‘Divisional Policing Plan for 2006’ contains several ambitious objectives but does not have a specific focus on rural policing.
Mayo’s Garda Chief Superintendent, Tony McNamara, knows better than anybody the problems faced. He says policing numbers have only begun to recover after almost six years in decline.
“From the year 2000 they (Garda numbers) had fallen due to natural wastage, retirements and non replacement. But in the last six months they have been brought roughly to the 2000 figure. We have been assured of further resources,” he said.
He hopes to allocate extra guards to rural areas from the the 2,000 promised by the Government. But he warns that resources are limited.
“It is an issue of numbers and we could do with more gardaí. But we have to be realistic. We are a national force and you have to look at Dublin, Limerick and Cork where there are serious crimes. Obviously we can’t hope to have the same number of guards allocated to Mayo as Dublin but in recent times we have suffered from more crime and an undercurrent of attacks on the elderly,” he said
Chief Supt McNamara would not comment directly on the Padraig Nally case but he said the such situations highlight rural and urban difficulties.
“It does highlight the difficulty of policing in rural areas, but even towns such as Ballyhaunis, Kiltimagh and Charlestown have suffered from social problems such as public disorder. These towns are never going to have more police than they have at the moment and that is the reality,” he said.
Part of the problem could be due to the centralisation of the gardaí both locally and nationally. Due to higher crime rates and centralisation, Gardaí have been moved to urban areas.
Hands are tied when it comes to simple decisions. If a patrol car breaks down, the police may in Supt McNamara’s words have to “make do” until Dublin provides a replacement.
The move toward community policing has been slow. There are two Rural Policing Initiatives - in Claremorris and Westport. But, according to Supt McNamara, the Claremorris project was set up on a pilot basis in the early 1980s.
The Minister for Justice has promised 4,000 Garda Reservists. Chief Supt McNamara believes that the reserve have potential to help in rural Ireland.
“I am in favour of it and believe it is a good idea. When people reflect on it they will begin to see the benefits...I think it will be a great thing in rural areas,” he said.
The Mayo Senator and MEP, Jim Higgins, is a former Fine Gael spokesman on justice. He said moving gardaí out of rural areas to towns must stop.  He believes a police presence is a big deterrent.
“Nobody knows the community better than somebody who is living in the community. Gardaí commuting to work in a rural area cannot possible know the area. There is a relationship if the guard is seen as a member of the community who dips in and out on an intermittent basis.”
Higgins also wants the community link to be made mandatory for new recruits.
“I believe part of the contracts of young gardaí coming out from Templemore should require that they live in the vicinity of the station they are attached to,” he said. 
Senator Higgins backs the Garda Reserve, he also says a later retirement age would retain experienced officers. He believes there is no escaping recruiting extra full time police.
“For a county like Mayo that stretches from Shrule to Belmullet, 273 gardaí is hopelessly inadequate. We would need an additional 100 gardaí at least,” said the Ballyhaunis-based MEP.
But action speaks louder than words and it will be up Senator Higgins and other politicians to lobby for Mayo to ensure policing is addressed.

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