As almost everyone knows, Department of Justice closed 95 Garda Stations at the end of January, including those in Stradbally and Ballyduff Upper, County Waterford.
During meetings of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee back in late October/early November, I raised the issue of rural policing and the need for the Garda Síochána to better explain their reform proposals.
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan spoke to the committee about doing a lot more with less and making the force as efficient and productive as possible, as well as achieving organisational reform.
As I said to him, “there are a lot of challenges in all of that”; though the new rostering system had proven that the force can change effectively.
I stressed to the Commissioner how essential it is that this new policing model is properly explained to the public, particularly to those living in rural areas who are used to having a Garda station in their communities, some of which have already lost town councils, local banks and post offices.
“Naturally they will be very concerned,” I said, adding that, “if the idea is to reorganise in order to effect better policing – and having spoken to the chief superintendent in my area, that seems to be the plan – then that must be presented very carefully and clearly” when the list of stations to close was published.
Commissioner Callinan assured me they are “painfully conscious of all of the sensitivities around station closures.” Indeed, he pointed out that half of last year’s bi-annual commissioners’ conference in Templemore was dominated by the issue of station closures and policing into the future.
The Commissioner told the Committee they’d strived to involve as many stakeholders as possible in the discussion as to what stations might usefully be subsumed into the closure programme. He said the very points I raised concerning the sensitivities involved “were very much on our minds.”
Mr. Callinan added: “The plan has always been to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation and is not, as I have indicated previously, a cost-saving exercise for the State, although there will obviously be savings. I am on the record as indicating that somewhere between €2,500 and €4,000 would be a typical maintenance bill for stations, so that money will be saved.
“However, in the overall context, it is not about savings,” he said, “but about providing a blueprint for future policing. That is what we are aiming for and I am absolutely subscribed, to the last scintilla, to the points raised by the Deputy regarding communication.”
In reply, I underlined how “We are in a time of massive uncertainty and I am particularly concerned about elderly people in rural areas. When an announcement such as the closure of a Garda station is made it increases their uncertainty, and the normal route or standard of communication will not be adequate in this situation.
“That is why there should be an additional level of communication, double what we are used to, to inform people about what is going on. It should focus on letting people know and explaining to them that the garda who was in their rural station will be utilised better for the community.
“There should be a heightened sense of communication. That is the critical issue. I go along with some of the sentiments of some of the senior gardaí to whom I have spoken. They have suggested many gardaí stationed in rural stations could be utilised better, but how that will take effect must be explained.”
He made the point that the country’s 700-or-so stations had been there since the foundation of the State, when the British were here, and there was a requirement for different reasons to have a widespread network of police stations.
“The evolution of policing since then means that the same number of stations is not needed,” Mr Purcell said. “Effectively, what the Commissioner is doing is to try to deploy resources to the best effect to deliver what might be loosely described as smart policing. Advances in technology facilitate that.
“The Garda Commissioner and the Minister are acutely aware of the views of local communities if a Garda station is closed. The intention is that, rather than have a Garda sitting in a rural Garda station dealing, perhaps, with the stamping of passport forms, the resources can be deployed in a more active way in that area.
“Without getting into details, there are many ways of dealing with the gap left following the closure of a one-man Garda station, which can result in a more visible Garda presence in an area. There are other ways of dealing with the issue,” Mr Purcell insisted. “The Garda has vehicles that could be used to give an indication of a visible Garda presence even in areas in which Garda stations have closed.”
Having heard what he had to say, I reiterated, “At a time when we are closing banks and post offices and abolishing town councils, particularly in rural areas, the closure of Garda stations is significant for communities that have lost a great deal in the past year.
“The Department needs to present this carefully as more effective and better policing and reassure the public that the changes will allow for and result in better policing. When people hear that the Garda station is closing they think of one thing – no police. The issue needs to be carefully presented and explained to the people.”