Irish Times
18 Apr 2012

GARDA CONFERENCE: THE BIGGEST Garda representative organisation in the State has clashed with Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, accusing him of being “soft on crime, the causes of crime and the proceeds of crime”.

Mr Shatter responded to the comments by the Garda Representative Association (GRA) by branding its leadership as “alarmist and irresponsible”, saying its words devalued the work of its own members’ work and ran down their morale.

The confrontation occurred at the GRA’s annual conference in Athlone, Co Westmeath, where delegates laughed during one section of Mr Shatter’s address and marked the end of his remarks with muted and short applause from a small number in the hall.

GRA president Damien McCarthy, whose organisation represents more than 11,000 members in the 13,600-strong force, took Mr Shatter to task on his record since coming to office just over a year ago. He dismissed his assertions that the service provided by the Garda was not being compromised by Government policies.

“A combination of reduced Garda numbers, budget cuts and station closures have hit the service,” he said.

“The people are suffering a sharp increase in homes being burgled. Service delivery to the public has continued to be reduced. Your appointment has so far failed to have any significant impact on policing.”

Mr McCarthy said gardaí also had to endure the fact that the criminals they worked hard to catch now had the benefit of a revolving door prison system.

“In many cases we see lenient sentences reduced because of prison overcrowding; even when the lives of gardaí have been cut short. Our members are rightly angered and feel betrayed by your shortcomings.

“Your Government has failed to establish itself as the government of law and order. So far, you have been soft on crime, soft on the causes of crime and soft on the proceeds of crime.”

In the address to Mr Shatter, Mr McCarthy said the plan to close 39 Garda stations this year, with more to follow next year, was an attack on rural Ireland that would leave areas abandoned only to become “criminal badlands”.

Calling on Mr Shatter to abandon his plans, he said the closure of stations would mean gardaí would lose touch with some communities, a factor that would greatly compromise their intelligence-gathering ability and making crime much harder to solve.

He asked if Mr Shatter wanted to be remembered as the Minister who had “dismantled” the Garda in the same way that Todd Andrews was remembered for dismantling the rail network in the 1960s.

In his address and later in comments to the media attending the conference, Mr Shatter refuted much of what Mr McCarthy had said and suggested it was the GRA president’s rhetoric that was damaging the force.

When he began his address by suggesting there was “every reason for morale to be high”, delegates laughed.

“[What is] damaging are suggestions that some unspecified action will be taken by members of the GRA to resist change and undermine Garda leadership,” Mr Shatter told delegates.

“It is talk such as this which I believe is damaging to morale, wrongly misrepresents the position of most members of the force and risks undermining the public’s confidence in the professionalism, capacity and dedication of the force to public duty.”

He also pointed out that the Garda force had been reduced in number by 800 members from its peak of 14,400 just over a year ago, and not by 2,000 members as Mr McCarthy had suggested. He said station closures would free up more gardaí for frontline duties.