There are massive variations across the State in the numbers of gardaí on sick leave or restricted duties, with more than 12 per cent of members unavailable for front-line duties in some divisions.
As of last month, 579 Garda members were “non-effective”, the official Garda term for sick leave – about 4 per cent of the entire force.
There are similar numbers of members restricted to light duties, meaning they cannot engage in front-line policing.
As of last December, the latest date for which figures are available, 546 gardaí (3.8 per cent of the force) were on light duties due to injury or pregnancy.
There are huge variations between Garda divisions, with rural divisions tending to be more badly affected than urban ones.
In north Cork, 9.1 per cent of gardaí were on light duties while the figure was 8.8 per cent in Laois-Offaly. At the other end of the scale, 1.1 per cent of Louth gardaí and 1.9 per cent in the Cavan-Monaghan division were on light duties.
The Sligo-Leitrim division had the most gardaí on sick leave (8.2 per cent) followed by north Cork (7.9 per cent). This compares with 2.7 per cent in Westmeath and 2.8 per cent in Clare.
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris is aware of the variations and has ordered research into the causes. It is understood the issue is also a matter of concern for Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan.
The high numbers of gardaí assigned to light duties could impact on the commissioner’s ambitious plans to civilianise large sections of the force so as to return more gardaí to front-line policing duties.
Mr Harris is seeking to civilianise 1,500 Garda roles by 2021. However, many of those roles, such as control room and administrative roles, are currently filled by gardaí assigned to light duties, some of whom have long-term injuries preventing them from returning to front-line duties.
The figures were released to The Irish Times following a Freedom of Information request. The Garda refused a request for the same figures broken down by district (the organisational level below the division) because criminals could use the information to specifically target undermanned districts.
Releasing such information “could confirm current operational capabilities at specific locations thus actively providing information that could reasonably be expected to assist criminal organisations and like-minded individuals in their development of counter measures and diversionary tactics”, the force said.
The figures support the findings of a highly critical Garda Inspectorate report which last year found sick leave and light duty rates were highest in rural divisions.
“To more effectively manage sickness absence and light duties, the inspectorate believes that the Garda Síochána needs to develop attendance management policies and procedures,” it said.
The report found the average garda was out sick for 6.6 days in 2017, resulting in a €13.3 million loss to the exchequer.
Civilian members of the Garda are almost twice as likely to be on sick leave. They averaged 11.9 days in 2017; a rate higher than both the Civil Service (10.1 days) and the public service (8.8 days).
Garda sources suggested absence rates are higher in rural areas because gardaí in busier urban areas feel their absence could affect investigations or community work.
“If you’re in a busy unit, you don’t want to let that unit down. It’s a camaraderie thing,” a Dublin-based garda said.
Regarding light duties, a Garda spokesman said the figures varied across divisions “owing to the nature of illnesses or injuries sustained, the age profile of members assigned and the nature of duties carried out within each division”.
“Garda management is aware of these variations and work is under way to examine the exact reasons for these variations.”