Garda (15 Days To Election)

Going through my list of important issues, and we come to that of law and order, all up in the news in the last few days following the hotel shooting in Dublin, and the debate over the Special Criminal Court, namely Sinn Fein’s calls for it to be abolished and nearly everyone else’s calls for Sinn Fein to stop calling for that.

Anyway, personal story time. I’ve lived in a lot of places in Maynooth, and am not registered at my current address, but one I lived in a few years ago. Most of the time, when it comes to elections and canvassing, this doesn’t really matter. For locals, candidates are in such a small area that they are knocking at every door going trying to find a vote (or at least should be), and for referendums it doesn’t matter either. Even in terms of voting cards, it doesn’t matter, since you don’t actually need one of those to vote. But having found out – or, at least, so a politician claimed – that I wasn’t being canvassed because I wasn’t living at the address I was registered at (not that I was ever canvassed there either) I decided it was time to update my info.

The process is a fairly simple one. You print out a form from the council. You fill it out. You take it to a Garda station and get it signed by a Garda. You post it to the council. It was step three of that process that tripped me up last Friday.

Maynooth Garda Station is basically just two semi-detached houses that have undergone interior re-decorating, on the corner of a crossroads near Maynooth Castle, the gates of Maynooth University, and the Roost pub. Like many Garda stations outside of outright urban areas, Maynooth Garda Station has seen its operating hours severely cut back, to the point that it is frequently only open for four hours of the day: 1000 – 1300, and 1900-2000.

Knowing this, I went down for around 1015, and to my irritation found the station closed up. The gates were open, there even lights on, but no one was home. I knocked. I knocked again, nothing.

I wondered off to do some shopping and came back a half hour later to see a squad car in the driveway, with two officers getting out and entering the station. The polite young Garda in the now opened station guessed immediately why I was there, and my business was concluded in around 30 seconds. It was as I was heading out the door that I realised the awful truth: namely that Gardai in Maynooth can either man the station, or be out on a call, but they do not have the manpower to do both, not even for a paltry three-hour shift.

Now, in fairness, you can hit an intercom on the outside of Maynooth Garda Station which connects to the 24 hour station in Leixlip, maybe 10-15 minutes up the road by car, depending on the time of day. But I couldn’t help but wonder about those emergency hypotheticals, about theft or assault or anything happening in the town outside of those hours (or even within them, if the place is closed because the Gardaí are out on a call), and how painfully long those 10-15 minutes, the most optimistic response time, must be.

There’s no denying, though its effect has been exaggerated by media, that reduction in Garda numbers and reduction in station opening hours has had a negative impact on law and order. Even beyond that, I feel as if Ireland has immense problems under that banner: a numbed acceptance of anti-social behaviour as something to be put up with, a lack of faith in the justice system to properly punish or properly rehabilitate criminals, and a simple lack of trust in the Garda due to absence from view, negligence in duty and corruption at numerous levels.

So, what do the parties say about Garda and their role in the state, and what did I think of those policies?

Fine Gael are promising investment in public services that will include 1’500 additional Garda by 2021, though the likelihood of the next government lasting that long appear slim. Aside from that, seems doable enough. People like Francis FitzGerald have also promised “tougher sentencing”, which might be the most overused words in electoral history when it comes to justice. Maybe more specifics will come when manifestos are actually released (everyone seems to be taking their sweet time with that).

Labour’s views on the issue are hard to find, buried deep in their website and PDF policy documents. They trumpet the planned recruitment of 600 additional Garda as part of Budget 2016 here, which already seems out of kilter with their coalition partners. Hmm. The Labour Capital Plan has a larger, though vaguer, section on justice and reform, focusing on improving Garda infrastructure and methods.

Edit 15/2/16: Labour’s very, very late manifesto contains a commitment to recruit 3’500 new Garda over the next five years.

Fianna Fail want to increase Garda numbers to 14’000 (that’s a 1’200 increase roughly, they leave that part out for some reason, also more recently FF TD’s have said 15K), invest in technology and empower community watch schemes. On the last point, I’ve always found them to be a weak deterrent and lame effort to ease the minds of suburban or rural residents, to very little practical effect, but OK. They also want a justice system that both punishes and rehabilitates criminals. You and me both pal, but if it hasn’t happened by now…

And so to Sinn Fein. It might surprise you to learn that they don’t offer a great deal on law, order and justice on their website, or in public utterances, which is probably good politics of nothing else. If Fine Gael have tripped up on the economy, Sinn Feiners trip up on those issues every time they open their mouths, and in the last few days most of all. That said, their manifesto, out just at time of writing, has plans: 3’000 new Garda, which seems like a one-upmanship game with the other parties already mentioned to be honest. They will also reverse station closures. What, all of them? Lack of specifics here, but that might change. On the issue of the Special Criminal Court, marked for abolition, Adams would probably be well advised to leave well enough alone, but his actual arguments aren’t totally crazy: it’s just the idea that a jury would have to be subjected to witness protection programmes, which essentially alter your entire life, is abhorrent to me.

You’d think Renua, being what they are, would be going on and on about this topic more, but not really. It’s buried deep inside their manifesto. You’ve got the moronic three strikes proposal, that famously doesn’t work in the States, calls for tougher sentencing (drink!), increasing life sentences (yeah, alright). An interesting idea in increasing the punishments levied at parents of children committing crimes, which I would be on-board for. There’s a big section on white collar crime – I’ll believe it when I see it – and then, interestingly, a commitment to New Zealand style rural engagement officer programs – essentially roving Garda units – which is at least a new idea. Of course, they might be surprised to find from their suggested survey of crime ridden areas that urban areas remain the worse off, but whatever.

The Greens have an actual justice plan too – in fact, it was the easiest one to find – that amounts to this:

Ireland’s justice system is in need of reform and that requires new thinking about how we tackle crime in all sectors of society. Crimes against women and children in particular must be taken more seriously. The Green Party believes in a justice system that reforms offenders as well as punishes them.

To find out more contact the Green Party’s Justice Spokesperson, Cllr. Roderic O’Gorman.

Great stuff lads. (Edit: They have since published more proposals in their manifesto).

Guess who has next to nothing out about Garda numbers, Garda stations, sentencing, crime etc? Why it’s AAA-PBP of course. Seriously, look up that name with “Garda”, “Garda stations”, “sentencing”, “justice”, “law & order” and see a whole list of nothing relevant coming back. I guess it’s just not their focus? The PBP manifesto mentions Garda just once, in plans to enact “whistleblower” legislation.

Lastly there is the Social Democrats, and back to their manifesto. They don’t talk extra recruitment or re-opening of stations – only noting that these things have damaged morale – but instead go on to other talking points. New technology, new training schemes, new ways to place personnel and investigate crimes…it’s strangely threadbare for the Soc Dems, since they are the party trying to cry the loudest about “Tax rates = Better services”. This doesn’t sound like a better service, it sounds like the dreaded call of “doing more with less”.

It’s all very similar then. Most want more Garda, more investment, more of everything. Only a few, like Renua, want to think outside the box. Very little of substance anywhere.

Here’s the thing. I don’t want to see loads of Garda recruited just to be patrolling the streets constantly, like we’re under occupation. The grannies calling into Joe Duffy might want that, but I sure don’t. What I want is more Garda to be available, in local stations that are open longer, and I want them to be empowered to do more about anti-social behaviour when the need arises. I want our prison system to abandon this ethos of incarceration with no efforts at rehabilitation, and for an effort to be made to educate people on why this isn’t some kind of surrender to crime.

I suppose it is a cliché, but I want ease of mind on these issues, and less of a feeling that, when it comes to my personal safety, the security of my home or legal deterrents for those who would prey upon either, I am increasingly on my own if the worst should happen. Those 10-15 minutes are important.

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