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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 2 September, 2014

Interview: ‘Two gardaí assaulted each day: the uniform doesn’t protect us’

GRA president Damien McCarthy paints a picture for TheJournal.ie of a force nearing breaking point – and raises “serious concerns” about the garda watchdog.

Michael Freeman

THIS MONTH, THE Government announced that 39 garda stations would be permanently closed, as funding for the force was scaled back by €114million.

At the time Damien McCarthy, president of the Garda Representative Association of rank-and-file officers, warned that the move would change “the genetic code of policing”.

In an in-depth interview, he spoke to TheJournal.ie about the challenges facing the force today – with falling manpower, rising assaults on officers, and what he called “serious concern” about the Garda Ombudsman. He also criticised temporary release schemes. Here’s what he had to say:

On the system under pressure:

“We’ve had a large amount of people retiring in the last two years – 2,000 approximately. And because of the recruitment moratorium, our numbers have spiralled downwards – they currently stand at around 11,000. But what happens in a recession? Crime rises. CSO figures show some categories of crime are remaining static; others are rising. Burglaries and assaults among them. That’s part of the recipe for disaster. A breaking point will come somewhere.

“It’s putting pressure on the frontline operations on the streets, the men and women out there in blue uniform. But the specialised units are suffering as well. There have been incidents in the city centre when we have reduced armed patrol. The Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation are absolutely struggling with the number of files that are coming in. There have been difficulties ensuring that car crews are out operational – there are roughly 40 less patrol cars on the road than there was this time last year.

“Over Halloween, in Ballyfermot there were 12 guards on duty. Whereas in previous years it would have been up to 30. As a consequence, there were five guards hospitalised. So not alone will the community suffer, but those few guards that are on the street, they will have an increased risk.”

On assaults on gardaí:

“About two guards per day get assaulted in Ireland. We had 800 assaults on members of the Garda Síochána last year, up from 720 the year before. And that’s only the ones that were recorded – not the things that you might regard as a minor assault; getting punched and kicked and spat on. I have asked for the Minister for Justice to create legislation to act as a deterrent.

“We get cases when a guard had a fractured jaw, a broken nose, a broken hand. One had a glass bottle broken and shoved in his face. And we believe that should carry a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. Because it simply isn’t working at the moment. The uniform isn’t protecting us.

“In the last number of years, we’ve had new equipment issued to us, stab vests and incapacitant spray. They’re a necessity because of the change in society, people have become more violent. Back in the 60s and 70s, perhaps people had a lot more respect for a member of the Garda Síochána. But now people have no regard for the law. It could be as a result of a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, but people have no regard. If there’s a stiffer penalty, and tough legislation, it will send out a clear message.”

On public service pay cuts:

“We’ve had seven consecutive pay cuts, when we thought we were going to have two pay rises. People forget that. In the force we have predominantly people with less than ten years’ service. I’m representing a group of people who are at the start of their careers. They have negative equity problems. We had people lending us money because they thought we were public servants, that our pay packets weren’t going to be touched.

“We thought there was security. In fact, no there isn’t. We’ve had to suffer and endure all those massive pay cuts. The only way I can put it to you is that we’re struggling to cope. Who is suffering? The people I represent – and number two, the people we serve.”

Protesters gather outside the Dáil last month to demonstrate against rural garda station closures (Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland)

On garda station closures:

“There has been a detailed examination of station activity, with a view to closing stations right around the country. But it is of invaluable assistance to have a garda station in a community. You can have a guard in a rural area that has built up a rapport with his or her community over a number of years. And we police by consent.

“We rely on that close relationship that we have with the local post man, the local shopkeeper, the local family; where the guard has been involved for years. So when and if something does happen, we rely on that person coming forward to give information to the guards. That’s how we’ve policed the state since its foundation.

“We are there to protect and serve the community, and in return we reap the benefits in some cases – where they feel that if there’s a wrong being done, they can go to their local garda station and give the information. That is priceless. If that is taken from us, the communities locally will suffer.”

On the Garda Ombudsman:

“I have no difficulty with the concept of an independent authority to investigate our matters. But in some instances, there has been a level of dissatisfaction, and serious concern about the way in which investigations were conducted. And I believe that is a very serious issue that must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

“I was disappointed as a result of one case in particular, about the manner in which an investigator had conducted himself. I refer to a recording that had taken place. A person that I represent had cooperated with an inquiry, and that person was brought before the courts on a charge of assault. The jury returned a not guilty verdict in less than 45 minutes.

“The guard had cooperated fully, and all other garda witnesses had cooperated fully. But a voicemail was left on the member’s phone, threatening the guard that if he didn’t respond to a phone call within an hour that it would be treated as a refusal to comply and the DPP would be notified the following morning. That type of activity is taking place and we have nowhere to take our issues.

“We have written to the Minister for Justice to ask him to set up an inquiry. And that was refused in that particular circumstance. It’s a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but we have no other option. Nobody is watching the watchdog.”

On the prison system:

“The prison service around the country shows that guards are doing their job. Prisons are over capacity in some instances. And measures are then put in place to alleviate that – so temporary releases are taking place, now more than ever before. People that we’ve invested a lot of time and energy in making sure that they’re brought to court – they’re being released.

“There are career criminals who are engaging in criminal activity the minute they’re released. Our members are being seriously assaulted by those on temporary release.

“This shows the cracks in the public service. It’s a wise and appropriate investment. It will save money in the long run, to make sure that the system doesn’t spiral out of control. Because it will take billions and billions and billions to clear up the mess that will be created.”

Damien McCarthy is the president of the Garda Representative Association.

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