Local stations not accurate measure of Garda strength
Reassuring presence: those concerned about safety in rural areas need to be told the risks of victimisation are low, not terrified by stories of violence. photograph: julien behal
OPINION:High intensity of police centres is a legacy of British rule. We must move from counting to overall efficiency
Any discussion of the number of Garda stations in Ireland should begin with a recognition that the country has an exceptionally high number of police stations, even with the recent closures.
We will retain more than 550 stations for a population of about 4.5 million. Scotland with a population of 5.2 million has 300 police stations and it was announced in late 2012 that a number of these are to close.
The London Metropolitan Police has 136 police stations for a population of more than eight million. New Zealand has a population of 4.4 million and has just over 400 police stations. Sweden now uses mobile police stations to attend areas which have higher crime rates on certain days of the week.
It is worth noting that the McCarthy report of 2008 recommended that half of the Garda stations be closed. The Government action on this issue has not come close to that. Of course, all this establishes is that we have a high number of stations, not whether it is appropriate or otherwise to have so many.
There are two reasons why there are so many Garda stations. First, when organised policing came to rural Ireland in the early decades of the 19th century it was imposed by a colonial power.
The primary concern of this colonial power was not to prevent crime or detect criminals. It was to prevent disorder and agitation. Having police in every nook and cranny not only enabled any such agitation to be stamped out before it gathered momentum, but it also enabled the gathering of information about residents in all areas of the country.
Eyes and ears of Britain
The Royal Irish Constabulary, as the force became known after it defeated a Fenian uprising in 1867, was the eyes and ears of Britain on the ground in Ireland.
In 1922, as part of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, it was agreed that the RIC had become so hated that its retention was untenable. While the Dublin Metropolitan Police could remain, the RIC would have to be replaced. Michael Collins established a committee given the task of organising a new police force for the rest of the country, outside of Dublin. In creating the Civic Guard, which later merged with the Dublin Metropolitan Police to become the Garda Síochána, that committee retained a model of policing very similar to the RIC.
Those appointed to the committee to draft proposals for the new force had mostly served in the RIC, an inevitability given that no one in Ireland had any other policing experience. Those men believed that in times of peace the RIC had, in fact, managed to maintain positive relations with the community and that in the newly independent Ireland this model of policing might function well.
Further, given the divisive nature of the treaty and the fear of Civil War, it is not entirely implausible that Collins wanted police spread so broadly for precisely the same reasons that the British had: to stamp out trouble and gather intelligence on those who opposed the treaty.
When the guards entered the communities in late 1922, they were sent to live in over 830 RIC stations, unless that station was in need of repair following the War of Independence. Keith Duggan wrote in The Irish Times (January 26th) that the station had been a constant presence since the foundation of An Garda Síochána in 1922; indeed, the station existed for decades before that and stands as a colonial legacy. We should not apply revisionism in our analysis of how many Garda stations Ireland should have.
For some time there were solid reasons for retaining this high number of police stations: poor infrastructure and limited Garda transportation made it exceptionally difficult for gardaí to visit even neighbouring areas. But as roads, Garda vehicles and communication improved, the need for so many stations lessened.
In the 1950s and 1960s, 130 Garda stations were closed, bringing the number across the country to just over 700. Dozens more were reduced to one-man stations, creating lonely and isolated working conditions. This level was maintained until 2011.
I contend that the reasons why so many stations exist in the first place are no longer relevant, but there may be other valid reasons for maintaining them. One view is that without these stations communities will be less safe.
The immense disquiet generated by the Government decision to close 100 Garda stations, many in remote rural areas, is understandable. It is a testament to our police service to hear communities expressing the extent to which the presence of the local garda contributes to a sense of safety.
However, despite what we might like to believe or hope, Garda presence rarely prevents crime or, as studies have established, it will only do so in high crime areas (Marvell and Moody, 1996; Sherman, 2002). Those concerned about their safety in rural areas need to be reassured that the risks of victimisation are low, rather than being terrified by inflammatory stories of violence.
In fact, if anything, freeing Garda time from manning stations in this area to be redirected toward investigative work may prevent more crime. This is important when some have made a connection between the closure of stations and the despicable murder of Det Garda Adrian Donohoe. Whether this heinous crime was committed by dissident republicans or by organised criminals, increased numbers of Garda stations could not have prevented that death.
What can prevent further violent crime by organised groups is detection and prosecution of those involved in these gangs and preventing guns entering the country. This will not be done in local Garda stations but by organised Garda units that work across the country, conducting investigation and surveillance, and co-operating with policing agencies beyond our borders.
Dr Vicky Conway is a lecturer in criminal law and policing at the University of Kent. Her new book, Policing Twentieth Century Ireland, will be published later this year by Routledge