Frustration in the ranks as Garda cutbacks and moratorium bite
It’s June 2011 and the parade square in the Garda Síochána College, Templemore, Co Tipperary, is heaving with activity.
New members of the force are scurrying around putting the finishing touches to their uniforms for their passing out parade in front of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and newly appointed Minister for Justice Alan Shatter.
Their families are packed into the seating around the square as the Garda band fires up the music. This is the class of 2011: all 126 of them.
They will be the last to graduate from the college for some time thanks to the recruitment moratorium that has hit the force. When they throw their hats in the air at the end of the ceremony and leave with their families to celebrate the start of their careers in policing, the lifeblood will drain from the college and, in large part, the town.
The protestations of the Garda Representative Association and Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors at the end of recruitment are forceful. But they fall on deaf ears. The country is bust and even the Garda cannot be spared from purges of public spending.
In the years before the class of 2011 passed out, and in the 18 months since, Garda resourcing has been chipped away and conditions for the men and women who make up the force have been eroded.
“It’s definitely not the job it was,” one member says.
The newspaper stories in recent days about Garda numbers being reduced by up to 1,500 this year have added to the force’s sense of being unfairly put-upon in the recession.
However, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has insisted Garda numbers will not be reduced below 13,000 this year, from 13,440 at present. And most of the reduction will come from retirements, he said.
The representative associations were quickly out of the traps yesterday to express strong objections to any further reduction in Garda numbers. In truth, their frustration has been building for a long time and is not based on a single issue.
It relates to a range of developments many gardaí see as having undermined policing and the special position in society that members of the Garda have always occupied.
Aside from the reductions in take-home pay felt by all public-sector workers, the once-generous levels of Garda overtime have been savaged to nothing from €155 million in 2007. Overtime payments have been used for years to fuel lifestyles far beyond what basic salaries would permit, including property investments.
However, with that cash gone and basic pay also stripped back, most gardaí are in weakened financial positions they could never have imagined. Many of them are servicing debt built up during the boom, based on long-lost boomtime salaries.
In their workplaces they are also encountering issues that would not have troubled them before. Garda rosters have been changed, with long-established arrangements set aside in favour of new timetables, with more gardaí working unsocial hours when the need for policing is at a maximum.
Garda numbers are dropping and promotional opportunities are nonexistent as a result of the promotions and recruitment moratorium. Some 40 Garda stations have closed and more than 100 more are set to shut this year. It means many members will be displaced from stations where they have worked for years. Those stations remaining open will take in more gardaí, despite many already being full to capacity.
“I suppose people feel it all devalues them a bit,” said one garda. “How important are and stations if you can just close 100 in the blink of an eye and when members weren’t even consulted?”
Others speak of a frustration at what they see as outside interference in their work. The Garda Ombudsman Commission is now effectively a mini police force that investigates gardaí. It can also instruct the Garda to carry out investigations on its behalf, which it then oversees. The Garda Inspectorate also reviews how the force works and makes recommendations for reform.
Both agencies now have their first five years of operation behind them but the new level of accountability they have ushered in has still not been fully accepted by some members of the Garda.