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Speech by Dinny McGinley Minister of State with special responsibility for Gaeltacht Affairs during Seanad Éireann Private Members’ Motion on Wednesday, 27 February 2013


Cathaoirleach,

I move the following amendment to the motion:-

To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:-

"Has confidence in the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Alan Shatter T.D., and commends him for the effective manner in which he is discharging his Ministerial functions.".

Introduction

Cathaoirleach,

Unfortunately Minister Shatter is unavailable and I welcome the opportunity to come before this House today to defend his record, and that of the Government, against this misguided and nonsensical motion.  The motion is quite clearly a piece of political opportunism of the worst sort.

At the outset I should say that I am disappointed by the fact that the Fianna Fáil Senators have tabled this motion.  In the first place, the motion is to a very large extent a re-run of a very recent and similar attempt to attack the way in which the Minister and the Government are handling difficult and complex issues within his Ministerial brief.  As that attempt, in the form of another proposed motion, was overwhelmingly rejected by this House two weeks ago, I do not see what real purpose can be served by seeking to cover pretty much the same ground so soon again.  Quite frankly the Fianna Fáil Senators could have found a more meaningful and appropriate use for their Private Members’ time, but that is the decision they have made.    

Just as importantly, there is no substance to the issues that have been raised in the motion and what the Fianna Fáil Senators have sought to do is merely to string together a set of topics on which they hope to garner some publicity.  Such an approach is ill-advised and it is designed simply to undermine the excellent work being undertaken by the Government in the relevant areas.  Also, but not surprisingly, the motion does not take account of the reality of the very difficult economic conditions facing the country.  In that context it is easy to understand why the Senators who have tabled the motion would wish to ignore our current and extremely harsh financial situation, especially when it is due in large measure to failures on the part of the last Fianna Fáil-led government.

As the bulk of the specific matters referred to in the Private Members’ motion relate to Minister Shatter’s  functions as Minister for Justice and Equality, I will deal with them first.   I will then address the relevant issues falling within his remit as Minister for Defence. 

Garda finance and resources
Members of the House, the legacy Fianna Fáil were happy to bequeath to the  Minister for Justice, a series of expenditure ceilings for the Justice sector which, if  applied, they would have resulted in devastating cuts in Garda services which he, as Minister for Justice, would not and could not stand over.

The Fianna Fáil National Recovery Plan was unacceptable and would certainly have put the Garda Commissioner in an impossible position. Fortunately, the Minister was able to secure additional funding over the three year period, 2012-2014, to ensure that the Garda Commissioner and indeed An Garda Síochána could continue to deliver an effective policing service.

In summary, for the Justice Sector in 2012, Minister Shatter secured €2.243 billion which was an additional €118 million over and above the Fianna Fáil allocation of €2.125 billion. For 2013 he secured funding of €2.2 billion which was €191 million over and above the Fianna Fáil allocation of €2.009 billion, and for 2014,  he secured funding of €2.065 billion which was €105 million over and above the original Fianna Fáil allocation of €1.96 billion.   With the Fianna Fail National Recovery Plan the Garda Commissioner and An Garda Síochána would have stood with an average of €90 million less each year for 2012, 2013, and 2014.

The Minister also made additional funding available last year and in 2013 for the purchase of transport for the Garda fleet for which no provision of any nature was made in 2009.  In that context, 213 new Garda vehicles were purchased in 2012 and the dedicated funding of €5 million in 2013 will allow for the purchase of a significant number of new vehicles this year.

With regard to Garda recruitment, the position is that recruitment to An Garda Síochána was ended by Minister Shatter’s predecessor Dermot Ahern.  The most recent recruits to enter Templemore did so in 2009 and the last substantial number of recruits graduated in June 2011. The last government planned to reduce Garda numbers  to 13,000 by 31st December 2014. The Minister is reviewing the position regarding Garda numbers in the light of an estimated reduction to just over 13,000 by the end of 2013, and, in this context, he will be bringing proposals to Cabinet in the coming weeks. He does not want the Garda numbers to fall below 13,000

I must also mention the discussions which have concluded recently on a revision to the Croke Park Agreement. Everyone who is involved in this process has recognised the perilous state in which Fianna Fáil have left our finances. It is only through the combined efforts of all parties who engaged in these discussions that we will begin to restore our fiscal sovereignty.

Minister Shatter did not choose the appalling financial position in which he have had to operate as Minister for Justice. However he has done everything possible to maintain the resources available to An Garda Síochána at the highest possible level. There is a budget of over €1.4 billion available for the Force in 2013 and, by any standards, this is a substantial amount.

Minister Shatter  is pleased that the provision of three new Garda Divisional Headquarters for Kevin Street in Dublin, Galway and Wexford was included in the special Government stimulus package announced last July.    

Garda station closures

At this stage I will address the question of the closure of some Garda stations which is referred to in the Fianna Fáil motion.

39 Garda Stations were closed in 2012. 8 of these had not been opened for a number of years and many only for a short period during each day. Indeed the same party which is now proposing a motion of no confidence in me for agreeing to formally close these stations presided over their continued existence on paper only in another attempt to fool the people. The closure of these stations simply recognised reality, a reality concealed by my immediate predecessors.   Following a comprehensive assessment by the Garda Commissioner of the Garda Station network, a further 100 were listed for closure in the Commissioner’s Policing Plan for 2013.  95 of these stations closed on 31st January 2013 and the remainder will close in the coming months.  

The Garda station network was inherited from the Royal Irish Constabulary network in 1922 on the foundation of the State.  Such a large-scale static deployment of resources is no longer appropriate in the present day, where the transport and communications infrastructure has been transformed beyond recognition.  The Garda Síochána have a class-leading police computer system, a state-of-the-art digital radio system, and a transport fleet which is currently receiving significant investment. 

Of the 100 stations on the list for closure, 98% opened part-time, 94% opened for 3 hours a day or less, 88% were manned by 1 Garda and only 5% manned by 3 or more Garda personnel. 

By way of comparison, there are 83 police stations in Northern Ireland for its population of 1.4 million and 340 stations in Scotland for its population of 5.2 million. In the London Metropolitan area, 66 police stations are due to close, leaving 73 police stations open to the public. These figures speak for themselves.

It is the Garda Commissioner’s professional opinion, following a comprehensive national assessment carried out over a period of 12 months, that a country the size of Ireland, with a population of 4.5 million, does not, in the 21st Century, need 700 Garda stations.  It is nothing less than scaremongering to suggest that reducing that network to 564 Garda stations is a cause for fear and anxiety.  It would be entirely wrong for the Minister for Justice, to second guess the Commissioner’s judgement and expertise in this matter.

It is unfortunate and regrettable that some public representatives, particularly in the ranks of Fianna Fáil, have been fuelling public fear regarding the impact of the closure of Garda stations.  In fact, Minister Shatter has been advised by the Garda Commissioner that Garda station closures in 2013 will result in an extra 61,000 Garda patrol hours. Are the detractors seriously telling the public that it is preferable to have Gardaí sitting behind desks in stations rather than being on patrol?

Some have sought to paint the Garda station consolidation process as an attack on rural Ireland.  However, the 2 largest stations listed for closure in 2013 are Stepaside in Minister Shatter’s own constituency of Dublin South and Kill O’ the Grange in the Tánaiste’s constituency of Dun Laoghaire.   In 2012 the 3 largest Garda Stations to be closed were Harcourt Terrace, Whitehall and Dalkey, all of which were also in Dublin.   

Garda Stations come under the control of the Office of Public Works and Minister Brian Hayes has confirmed that, if an appropriate community management structure is put in place, the closed stations can be utilised for local community purposes.

Commissioner Callinan has stated that the revised structures will continue to support the Garda community philosophy through the clustering of services at policing hubs.  This centralisation of services will facilitate the introduction of enhanced patrolling arrangements which, in turn, will provide increased Garda visibility as well as maintaining existing Garda links with communities throughout the country.  
In addition, An Garda Síochána has recently acquired a number of vehicles which are being converted into mobile Garda offices and it is planned that they will be assigned to areas where Garda stations have been closed to ensure that members of the public can continue to conduct their business and interact with members of An Garda Síochána.

All Gardaí have a part to play in community policing and currently there are more than 1,000 Gardaí dedicated to community policing countrywide. 

Gardaí continue to work closely with all communities to enhance community safety through a wide range of local fora such as Community Alert and Neighbourhood Watch. 

Minister Shatter’s Department , along with the HSE has, for many years, supported the work of the Community Alert Programme, which was set up in 1985 by Muintir na Tíre in association with the Garda authorities. The programme has 1,300 local groups. The close involvement of Gardaí with the Community Alert Programme was further underlined in January this year by the signing of an updated Memorandum of Understanding between An Garda Síochána and Muíntir na Tíre who administer the programme. Furthermore, a new Garda Community Crime Prevention Programmes booklet has been published to support the establishment and operation of Community Alert, Neighbourhood Watch and similar local crime prevention initiatives.


Delivery of Garda Services

An Garda Síochána has risen to the challenges that it faces in the current economic climate. Change is being delivered in cooperation with the members and staff in the Garda Síochána.

Without doubt, the single biggest transformation project in the Garda Síochána, and arguably in the public service, has been the development and implementation in 2012 of a new roster system in the Force. Not only does the new roster provide a more effective policing service, it also protects the health and welfare of the members of the Garda Síochána.  The new Garda roster system ensures that resources are optimally deployed when and where they are required, to every part of the community, both rural and urban.  Evidence of the new roster is immediately apparent on our streets as more Gardaí are on duty at times of peak demand and fewer during quieter periods.  This is essentially what this reform is about – doing things differently but doing them more effectively.

Crime
In response to allegations about increased crime levels across the country - the most recent available crime statistics, published by the Central Statistics Office,  for the 12 months ending on 30th September 2012, show reductions in 12 of the 14 crime groups.  There have been reductions in the numbers of crimes against the person including homicide offences, sexual offences and assault and related offences.  Public order and damage to property offences are also down as are drug offences and weapons and explosives offences – details of all these reductions have already been reported to the House.  Burglaries, however, increased by 7.9% during the period.

Operation Fiacla was set up by the Garda Commissioner and is particularly focused on identifying and targeting mobile gangs involved in burglaries around the country.   and is extremely effective. In the period to the end of January 2013 it resulted in 3,903 persons being arrested and 2,142 persons being charged.  In addition, the latest quarterly figures for burglary suggest that Operation Fiacla is having an impact, when compared with the quarterly figures prior to its introduction. These figures, taken together with the robust response of the Gardaí in tackling gangland crime and the activities of paramilitary organisations, are clear evidence that, while the Gardaí cannot avoid the economic realities, they have been more than able to continue to respond effectively to crime. Indeed the most recent crime figures show that the number of aggravated burglaries is down when compared with the previous 12 months.
 

Gangland violence
Everybody shares the widespread outrage at gang related criminal activity.  The Minister is in on-going contact with the Garda Commissioner about all aspects of serious crime and the Gardaí will continue to bear down heavily on the activities of those involved in gangland crime.  The only effective way to combat organised crime is by disrupting and prosecuting those involved in its operations, and especially the drugs trade which is at the heart of much of its profits.

We shouldn’t underestimate the difficulties the Gardaí face in trying to prevent gangland killings and related crimes and in bringing the perpetrators to justice.  These crimes are carefully planned and are carried out by people who are very familiar with criminal and forensic investigation techniques.  Moreover, despite the clear risk to themselves, members of gangs will not generally cooperate with Garda investigations. Despite these difficulties the Gardaí have been able to bring people before the courts, particularly in relation to a number of high profile killings in the past couple of years, although it will be some time before those cases are disposed of.

This is not a budgetary matter. The Commissioner has made it clear that where resources are needed to combat serious and organised crime, those resources will be made available. The number of gangland murders was, in fact, higher when Garda numbers were higher than they are now. 

There is already very strong anti-gangland legislation in place.  Minister Shatter has made it clear to the Garda Commissioner that, if he feels there are other measures which might be taken in this area, Minister Shatter will look at that very positively. 

Criminal terrorism

Despite the many positive developments that there have been over recent years in Northern Ireland, the Gardaí have never relented in their efforts to counteract criminal groups whose only objective is to drag our island back to a dark past.  The shared objective of the Government and the authorities in Northern Ireland is to enhance community safety on the whole of this island. The Minister has asked me to assure  the House that we will continue, in co-operation with the authorities in Northern Ireland, to spare no effort to ensure that those criminal terrorists who seek to subvert the democratic will of the people will face the full rigours of the law.

Prison matters

The prison system also features in the Fianna Fáil motion.  This is an area in which Minister Shatter has adopted a very proactive approach since becoming Minister for Justice and significant progress has already been made within that relatively short period.  As Senators will be aware, the system faces many challenges, including pressure of numbers and the fact that many of the prisons are very old.  While these challenges are significant, the Minister will continue to ensure that they are addressed as effectively as possible.

The largest single allocation of the capital allocation to the Justice Sector for 2012 was provided by Minister Shatter to fund the Prison Service Building Programme.  This significant capital investment underlines the Government’s commitment to addressing the twin problems of overcrowding and physical conditions within the prison estate.  Refurbishment, including the provision of in-cell sanitation, continues in Mountjoy Prison and approval has been granted to the Prison Service to proceed with the project to replace Cork Prison. The drafting of detailed plans for the replacement of two outdated wings in Limerick Prison has also been approved.

A new Unit opened in December 2012 in the Dóchas Centre which provides an additional 20 spaces. A new accommodation block at the Midlands Prison became operational in late 2012 providing a potential 300 additional spaces as well as additional work training and educational facilities.  

The Minister has also actively pursued alternatives to custody.  In that context he has established a working group to conduct a strategic review of penal policy. The group, which has a very wide remit, has been asked to examine the role of penal policy in crime prevention, sentencing policies, alternatives to custody, custodial accommodation and regimes, reintegration and rehabilitation, and any special issues relating to female offenders and prisoners.

Finally, the Minister is very much aware that the Prison Service has actively engaged with the staff associations as part of the Public Service Agreement 2010-2014. As part of a joint task review process, management and staff representatives within the Prison Service are working effectively together to implement the provisions of the Public Service Agreement. That ongoing process is addressing every aspect of the operation of the prison system and has resulted in the implementation of new daily task lists, new staff rosters and new staff configurations in 7 establishments in 2012.  In addition another 4 prison development reports have been agreed and will be implemented next month. Reports for the remaining 4 prisons are at an advanced stage of completion.
 
Cooperation between management and staff within the Prison Service is at a high level during this challenging period. This has been achieved through a clear focus on communications facilitated through bilateral engagement with the staff associations and the support of the Prisons Sector Group of the Implementation Body.  In addition, Senators may be aware that specific measures relating to prison staff were incorporated in the proposals for the revision of the Croke Park Public Service Agreement which have recently been circulated by the Labour Relations Commission.
 
Defence issues

I will now deal with the element of the motion which is concerned with Minister Shatter’s role as Minister for Defence.  In that regard, his primary objective in progressing the initiatives that have been taken has been to focus on maintaining the operational capability of the Defence Forces to fulfill all of the roles assigned by Government.

The consolidation of the barrack infrastructure has been a long term policy in this respect. Moreover, the re-organisation of the Permanent Defence Force has succeeded in freeing up personnel for operational duties and in improving the overall effectiveness of the Force. 

Reports and studies back to 1990 identified barrack closures as a fundamental requirement towards improving military effectiveness and efficiency.  A total of fourteen barracks have been closed by successive Governments over the past 14 years. 

The total realised to-date in terms of sales of surplus property is approximately €85m. This, together with income of €18m approx. from the sale of other smaller military properties and married quarters has been re-invested in a number of areas including:
·  the provision of accommodation, training facilities
· the equipment  modernisation programmes which involved major acquisitions including,  Light Tactical Armoured Vehicles, Mowag Armoured Personnel Carriers, 8 helicopters and two new Offshore Patrol vessels.

The Minister is committed to maintaining the capacity of the Defence Forces and he is satisfied that the Defence Forces are currently fully capable of meeting those tasks assigned to it.

 

Conclusion

To conclude -  members of the Garda Síochána provide a vital service to the public and they deserve the support of the public. A safe society is the responsibility of every member of that society and not just the Gardaí.  The interconnection between Gardaí and community is a vital one in the successful delivery of a policing service in Ireland. This Government will not shirk in our responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that that connection is not broken and that the best possible resources are made available to An Garda Síochána.

Similarly, the Government will continue to pursue the development and improvement of the prison system. That project has been a major priority for Minister Shatter during his time as Minister for Justice and this will continue to be the case.

In addition, Minister Shatter has worked very hard to ensure that the Defence Forces will be fully capable of fulfilling their important tasks.  He is satisfied that this is the position and that it will be maintained. 

As I have demonstrated very clearly, the Fianna Fáil motion is completely without substance and, accordingly, I commend the amendment I have proposed to this House.

ENDS