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Garda reforms – a step forward or back?

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TAKING NOTES Garda Commissioner Drew Harris takes notes during a meeting with the Mayo Joint Policing Committee in November. Members of the committee were unhappy with the commissioner’s response to their questions about plans for policing reforms.  Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Continued concerns have been expressed about restructuring of An Garda Síochána

News feature
Edwin McGreal

Later this year, radical new Garda restructuring will be implemented that will see the Mayo Garda Division amalgamated with the Roscommon/Longford Division.
The last three meetings of the Mayo Joint Policing Committee (JPC) have seen lengthy debate about plans for the reorganisation of An Garda Síochána and discussion about what impact the plans will have on the ground in Mayo.
The proposals were first revealed to members at the September meeting. In November, the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, attended the JPC meeting in Breaffy House Hotel. Several members expressed concerns about his proposals. He answered some questions, though far from all.
There was, admittedly, some repetition from those asking questions, but it was also clear that certain questions remain unanswered, for whatever reason.
Criticism of the Commissioner was voiced at the December JPC by Dara Calleary, a TD for Mayo and the Deputy Leader of Fianna Fáil. Calleary was, undoubtedly, the most vocal critic at the November meeting.
He said there was ‘no major response’ from the Commissioner at the November meeting, and he asked if the Commissioner had responded subsequently in writing to any members of the JPC, including garda chiefs in the county. He was told there was no such response.
“That’s not particularly respectful of the work of this committee,” replied Calleary. “A lot of work went into that meeting. I propose we write to the commissioner, asking him to respond to the concerns expressed at that meeting. What is the point in coming down if all he did was give the same line and really not respond to any concerns? Sure we might as well have had an ordinary meeting,” he added.
Dara Calleary opened the questioning of the Commissioner at the November meeting, and his comments, concerns and questions are worth detailing in the context of the general concerns of the committee and the rank and force gardaí who they spoke to.

‘Frustration’
“Commissioner you are very welcome to a county where there is huge respect and huge engagement with An Garda Síochána. You’re welcome to a county that has given up more than its fair share of sons and daughters in the active service of An Garda Síochána and we think about all of them today,” said Calleary.
“You mentioned [in the Commissioner’s introductory comments] about the long distance, from Dublin to Mayo. It is a normal comment that we are used to from people not used to that journey. The distance from Blacksod to Edgeworthstown in this new region is 215 kilometres and from Keem in Achill to Granard [Longford] is 210 kilometres which is currently served by 652 members from figures that I have.
“Our understanding of this new model is that in this district of three counties we will have one chief superintendent and four superintendents with various responsibilities. Can you just confirm or speak to that?
“That would diminish the level of engagement and the community engagement unit is very important. Community involvement has been the hallmark of An Garda Síochána in Mayo.
“Secondly of the attested guards since 2014 we’ve only got an extra 40 in five years in Mayo. So can you tell us now in terms of your planning of this model, how many extra guards you anticipate we will get in this county over the next period? At the moment, in the new district of Mayo, Roscommon and Longford there are 16 inspectors and 109 sergeants. I presume you’ve been planning on implementing this in quarter three of next year, so you’ve some sort of handle on the figures of how many extra inspectors, how many extra sergeants there will be.  
“Going back to that distance, 215km in length, 210km wide, do you honestly think one on duty inspector is actually going to be able to manage that model in terms of three counties, one with a very large Atlantic coastline?
“We had a discussion here about the drugs corps in Mayo. There are currently five members of the drugs unit. The biggest problem that our communities are engaging with us about at the moment, is drugs. Could you give a commitment to address that particular situation in terms of addressing the resource there?
“Finally Commissioner, I think some of the commentary when the model was introduced said it was based on a UK model. Can you comment on that and [or reports] that those models have been diluted and reversed in recent times? The last time I heard a lot of language around these proposals about centralising and getting better things into a core setting was a thing called the HSE and that didn’t work out so well, so we need assurance, Commissioner, in relation to the numbers.
“We need assurances that the level of community engagement, but more importantly, community involvement, that we have had from our An Garda Síochána and on which the respect for An Garda Síochána in this county, which is very high, is based, is not going to be diminished by your proposals.
“I’m afraid I am not convinced and I’m not convinced by what I heard here today that it won’t be diminished. Keeping people safe depends on your officers being near people, and taking management away from the people is not going to help us with that.
“This seems to be a fait accompli but I really need you to understand the size of the district, the concerns of people around these proposals and the respect for which people in this county have for An Garda Siochána.”

Wasted opportunity
Other members of the JPC followed up after Calleary. Some made some very pertinent points and asked some very relevant questions. Others, unfortunately, wasted the opportunity given to them with off-topic questions.
The meeting was running over an hour late and before all members had asked questions. By then Deputy Calleary had made his apologies and left for another engagement.
Perhaps his absence opened the door for the Commissioner to sidestep some of the the questions asked.
The December meeting opened with criticims from Dara Calleary about the lack of engagement by the Commissioner. His comments were echoed by Cllrs Michael Kilcoyne, Christy Hyland, Michael Loftus and Damien Ryan.
Both he and other politicians were also critical of the minutes of the November meeting not recording in sufficient detail the concerns they had expressed.
“I’d like to see some of those concerns reflected in the minutes so that as a policing committee we can be seen to have done our job when what I think will be the inevitable outcome of these reforms comes to pass in a few years’ time when Garda services in this area are actually diminished and I think as a committee we stood up to that and that’s not reflected in the minutes of the last meeting,” said Deputy Calleary.
Time will tell about the effectiveness or otherwise of the proposed changes, but members of the Mayo JPC certainly have their doubts. The proposals are due to take effect later this year – the Commissioner told the November meeting the target is the third quarter of 2020.
By this time next year we might have a better understanding of whether the fears are justified.


MORE: The Garda Reforms explained