In last week’s Mayo News, we led with news of Mayo’s garda chief defending an increase in the number of drink-driving checkpoints in the county in recent months. The comments were made by Chief Supt Pat Diskin at the quarterly meeting of the Mayo Joint Policing Committee (JPC) in Castlebar on Friday, February 15.
The chief’s comments came at the end of one of the more thorough debates we have heard on any issue in this county in recent years. Most county councillors present strongly objected to the greater enforcement of drink-driving legislation since the introduction of Minister Shane Ross’s new legislation last October, which imposed greater penalties for drink-driving.
These councillors argued that many people in rural areas are now too afraid of checkpoints to go socialising in their local pubs during the evenings, and that these people are also frightened of being stopped the following morning or afternoon.
The councillors’ views were supplemented by those of Mayo County Council Chief Executive Peter Hynes, who argued that the greater numbers of checkpoints could mean one problem being overemphasised at the expense of more significant issues. Mr Hynes argued that while the number of people killed on Irish roads in 2018 (149) is ‘an enormous figure’, he added that ‘it will never be zero’, and he highlighted the issue of ‘diminishing marginal returns’.
He went on to argue that the number of deaths from self-harm in this country, both reported and unreported instances, is ‘multiples’ of 149 per year, whereas the budget to combat that problem is ‘a minute proportion’ of that dedicated to road safety.
He said sometimes issues become ‘lightning rods’ – citing water charges – and he said that there was a ‘real concern’ about the increase in checkpoints.
Whatever about elected councillors, who can sometimes be accused of playing to the masses, these were very strong comments from the council chief, a man not directly elected, and they hint strongly at the mood out there on the issue.
Greater Garda visibility
While Hynes made some very strong points, so too did Chief Supt Pat Diskin, who spoke directly afterwards. Speaking specifically about road deaths in Mayo, Chief Supt Diskin said nine people had been killed on Mayo roads in 2018 and 13 in 2017. He described the latter as a ‘shocking figure’.
“I’m tasked ... with making the roads safer,” said Chief Supt Diskin, who said he has increased staffing levels in the county’s Road Traffic Unit. “We don’t want to prevent people from moving out from their homes. We’d always encourage it. But we have a job to do. It’s road safety.”
He went on to add that greater Garda visibility in rural areas had greatly reduced the number of break-ins in recent months, a point that was echoed by many councillors. “A lot of people complained to me that they never saw a garda in their local village, and I gave a commitment a long time ago that we would increase visibility, that we would go out to areas where you don’t normally see Garda cars,” he said.
The lack of Garda visibility in rural areas has been certainly one of the biggest talking points about rural policing in recent years, so now that there is greater visibility, can we pick and choose what parts of the law gardaí choose to enforce when they are in rural areas?
But, as Peter Hynes argued, it would be wrong to ‘trivialise’ people’s feelings on the topic either.
The divisive nature of the debate is made clear when you see two measured officials like Pat Diskin and Peter Hynes, neither given to hyperbole, arguing strongly against each other. And when both make very strong arguments, it is easy to understand why neither side of the argument can be easily discounted.
While it can certainly be said there are local elections coming up, there’s little doubt that most JPC speakers on this issue, on both sides, had sincerely held views. Certainly the election argument could not be thrown at Cllr Michael Holmes, who is retiring in May.
As a man who never consumed alcohol and who has said he ‘detests’ drink, Cllr Holmes’s views were among the most passionate. People felt like prisoners in their own homes, he said, adding that they are particularly afraid of driving the day after drinking alcohol.
We have heard many instances of checkpoints operating during the daytime and, like it or not, there is a perception out there that sometimes the Gardaí operates checkpoints to snare people who may be unsure if they are over the limit or not.
Sure, if someone is over the limit, they are running a risk, but there is also a big difference between someone who drives at 11am the next day thinking they are fine and the person who drives home from the pub after five or six pints.
What is telling, though, is that this issue is indeed becoming a lightning rod. Closures of post offices, Garda stations and small schools arguably did not have the same impact. Maybe that says something about our priorities in the west, or perhaps it is simply a case of the straw that breaks the camel’s back in relation to rural decline.
But the reality is, continuous inaction on rural decline by successive governments has already stoked the flames. Now it is An Gardaí Síochána that finds itself in the firing line as rural anger rises.