Garda numbers have declined by almost 500 since the pandemic began, with senior officers now fearful policing demands will severely test the force this year.
The reduction in Garda numbers since the pandemic began has been compounded during the Omicron wave. The number of unavailable gardaí rose to between 1,200 and 1,300 in recent days, according to sources. The Garda Representative Association has called for priority Covid tests and boosters .
In March 2020, the number of sworn Garda members in the force had reached 14,750, a record high. But it is now down to 14,263, a drop of almost 500 personnel.
Resourcing in the force has been hit by what one source termed “the perfect storm”. Recruitment has been halted due to the pandemic, yet about 300 members have retired this year.
Furthermore, hundreds of members have been reassigned away from frontline policing and into new units as the Garda expands its specialist crime investigation capabilities as part of its ongoing reform process.
New divisional drugs units had been created across the country and other frontline gardaí had been promoted into the new Divisional Protective Services Units, which investigate sexual and domestic violence. The creation of the Anti Corruption Bureau had also been allocated 90 Garda personnel while the Special Detective Unit, which investigates terrorism, and the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau will soon be recruiting.
“All of these units are welcome, they will provide a better service to victims,” said one senior Garda officer familiar with frontline policing. “But we are losing people to these units and those people are coming from the front line, off the streets, at a time when we are already under pressure because [Garda] numbers are down.”
In reply to queries, Garda Headquarters said the "ability to recruit and train new Garda members" as had been planned was "severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic". While it placed restrictions on all educational establishments, including the Garda College in Templemore, some 150 recruits still joined the Garda this year.
It added the continued recruitment of civilians – who do not need to be trained at the Garda College and many of whom can work from home – had facilitated the redeployment of many sworn Garda members from office jobs to the front line.
That civilisation process had in recent years seen more than 350 sworn Garda members redeployed to the front line. In addition, some 300 gardaí had been assigned to new Divisional Protective Service Units, which investigate sexual and domestic violence, while more than 300 members had been assigned to divisional drug units to target street-level dealing.
A spokesman for Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the Government planned to recruit an extra 800 gardaí and 400 civilian staff to the force, with more than €2 billion being invested in the Garda.
“While Covid has caused some recruitment difficulties, the Government is determined to meet its target of a 15,000-strong Garda force,” Ms McEntee’s spokesman said.
Based on projections drawn up by Garda Headquarters, it will take until the end of this year before Garda numbers recover to the 14,700 strength seen at the start of the pandemic.
It will likely take longer until the Garda force reaches 15,000 members – a key part of the Garda’s reform programme – some two years behind schedule. And if plans for an accelerated recruitment drive this year are even temporarily halted by Covid-19, those projections will have to be redrawn.