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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 19 June, 2019
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Column: Public and political attitudes to gardaí have to change

Following the murder of Garda Adrian Donohoe, it’s time to take stock of the contribution gardaí make to society, writes Steven Wrenn.

Steve Wrenn

THE BRUTAL ASSASSINATION of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe came as a numbing and devastating shock to Irish society. It doesn’t matter what cause, if any, the cold-blooded killers of this brave man align themselves to, but the fact is they are evil thugs with no regard for human life.  The massive outpouring of support shown by members of the wider society in Ireland towards An Garda Siochana and the Donohoe family is a thankful acknowledgement that the majority of people in our society still hold our gardaí  in high regard.

Station closures

The lack of understanding and empathy shown by my political colleagues in relation to the closing of Garda stations is very disappointing. The failure to take into account the public’s feelings in relation to station closures highlights the fact that those politicians and civil servants involved are detached from reality.

The reality being that losing their local station creates fear in people’s lives. Knowing that you have a police station near you is the same as knowing that you have a local doctor or that the hospital is five miles away, and you know what route to take should you need to go. It’s the same as knowing that you have family around you – should you need to call on them like we all do from time to time. It is perfectly understandable why people in rural communities feel unsafe and let down. Psychologically, people felt safe by merely knowing that their local village had a Garda station in it, despite the fact that it may not have been manned on a full-time basis.

Given the difficult financial circumstances we find ourselves in, I have no doubt that some stations needed to be closed and others merged, but failing to clearly explain how gardaí can respond to calls within an appropriate time frame following the various closures indicates that the politicians involved have been consumed with making monetary savings at all costs – rather than balancing their economic objectives with suitable ways of reassuring people that their safety will not be affected. How can the Government compare the savings made by station closures to the effect that these closures have on people’s mental health and quality of life? There should be no comparison: our citizens’ quality of life should always come first.

Public attitudes to gardaí

Unfortunately over the last 10 to 15 years certain elements within our society have caused a slow erosion of the moral authority once commanded by our gardaí. Continuous and unrelenting negative remarks and commentary by these people about the gardaí has in turn been adopted by certain elements in the Irish media.

Nobody is disputing the fact that very small rogue elements within the gardaí have been guilty of certain wrongdoings in recent years.  The establishment of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) to investigate complaints was a device that was welcomed by all, including the gardaí – as its independent status showed that there would be no question about the vindication of gardaí when they were cleared of any wrongdoing.

However, since the establishment of GSOC, a pattern has emerged in how the media have reported when GSOC have been called in to investigate certain incidents. For example, various articles and broadcasts in recent years have been worded in a way that automatically insinuated wrongdoing on the part of the gardaí involved. Where were the follow-up media reports to show the countless incidents where gardaí were subsequently vindicated by GSOC? Answer – nowhere, because it has become fashionable to only print articles or broadcast reports that criticise the gardaí, as opposed to complimenting them.

Irish society needs to realise that continuous negative sensationalist publicity, driven by certain elements, has affected morale across the gardaí, but – more importantly – has slowly impacted on society’s view of the force. The savage murder of Garda Donohoe was clearly carried out by thugs with no respect for the gardaí. Who else does society expect to take on these thugs and put them behind bars so we can all feel safer?

Our police force thrived for years because of the close relationship its members had with the community. The Garda organisation was formed as an unarmed service, and gardaí relied on their officers being deeply rooted within communities and building mutual trust with those it served.  It’s time the negative commentary about our gardaí STOPPED, and that more recognition be given to the fact that these brave men and women are prepared to lay down their lives to protect us.

Roles and recruitment

We constantly hear in the media from my colleagues in the political world that we have no money for garda recruitment. The last time there was a gap when no garda recruits were in training at the Garda College was from 1987 to 1989. We have now exceeded that time frame. Even if Government were to make a modest investment in recruiting a mere 100 trainees per year until the overall recruitment embargo is lifted, it would still not outweigh the number of guards retiring each year.

We must constantly review legislation from all over the world with a view to introducing new and creative ways to deal adequately with criminals. There is speculation that one of the suspects for Garda Donohue’s murder was on bail at the time of the killing. Currently, gardaí have no power to arrest a person who has breached their conditions of bail, unlike in the UK.

Gardaí should be given the power to issue ‘fines on the spot’ notices for public order offences to free up our courts to deal with more serious crimes. Once a public order offender’s identification is verified, they could be sent on their way to look forward to a fine in the post the following week.

Prisons need to be tougher experiences for serious criminals and not be places where they can coordinate drug trafficking. If the taking of liberty is what criminals are sentenced to then let us ensure that their liberty is taken. We should also look at more community-based initiatives so that offenders can be put to work and make a positive contribution to society where appropriate.

The future

We have seen how effective ‘zero tolerance’ policing was in New York City. It’s time that we dumped our sure its grand attitude and got tough with our criminals. Members of An Garda Siochana have nothing to fear from the Garda Ombudsman or their senior officers if they work within their powers and within the law. If we start now with a zero tolerance policy, in five years we will have a safer country with safer communities. Garda morale will improve, and gardaí will receive the respect they deserve for putting their lives on the line to protect us. Our streets and communities will be safer places.

We should consider asking Europe to fund some of our Garda Units. Specialist Units like the Garda National Drugs Unit, Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation and Anti-Terrorist Units should be funded by Europe. Terrorism and Drug trafficking and the financing of same is an international problem.

Possessing a law degree or having a background in policing doesn’t necessarily mean you have all the skills required to be a Minister for Justice. Having a thorough understanding of how society works and how policing works is by far the best possible qualification. Until we have a government that is able to prioritise the impact that crime has on our society, rather than being consumed with making financial decisions, we will never have safe communities.

Hopefully the tragic death of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe will not be in vain but will result in simple changes being made to give the garda organisation the strength – and respect – it needs and deserves to keep us all safe.

Steve Wrenn is a Labour Councillor for the Dublin North West Constituency. He is also the Peace Commissioner for the City of Dublin and surrounding counties.

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