Rural garda stations to close


As 95 Garda stations close across Ireland this week, locals in one affected community lament the cutting of another thread in the fabric of country life .

The Garda station in Tynagh, Co Galway, closed for good last night. It was the classic Irish country station: a reassuringly solid beige-painted house on the edge of town whose front door was furnished with the unmistakable blue lantern of the force. The station has been a constant presence in the village since the foundation of An Garda Siochána, in 1922.

It was just one of 100 stations listed for closure in a November announcement by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter. (Ninety-five of these are due to have closed by the end of this month. Thirty-nine closed last year.) In the postbudget anxiety and the Christmas bedlam, many people seemed to miss the scale of the change: doors locked in 100 Garda stations across the countryside, just like that.

In Tynagh, the significance began to dawn on people only when they read the bulletin in the parish newsletter at Mass last Sunday. It was there in black and white under the bingo notice.

“As if it happened overnight,” says Marie Burke. “We had no time to think, and it doesn’t make any sense to us. This was always the main station in the area. There is a jail cell here.”

She is speaking on Tuesday in a house on the main street where some Tynagh residents have gathered to discuss the closure of the station. Burke grew up in Ennis but has raised a family in Tynagh and until her recent retirement worked as a bank official in Portumna. It is only 4pm but the hedgerows outside the village are already dusted with frost and the fire is burning in the living room. The television is on mute; Dáithí Ó Sé is japing on screen.

On Monday night, 60 people had turned up at a meeting to hear a superintendent from Loughrea explain what the change in policy would mean. “He was just doing his job and told us not to shoot the messenger. But there was nothing comforting in it,” Burke says.

“Rural Ireland is slowly – and not even slowly – being closed down. Everything they are legislating for in Dublin has a huge impact here, and it will eventually close villages down. Why would young people come back here? Even to farm? The barracks is gone . . . the health centre will be next. The post office will be next. You can’t come out for a drink any more. People who for all their lives had the pub as their social outlet have had that taken away.

“It is okay in towns and cities, but here . . . They can’t afford to keep the station open for one hour here? This was the main station in this area. Why close it? It has to be down to politics. And they don’t even have to give us an explanation. They treat us like a pack of imbeciles.”

Tynagh is set deep in southeast Galway, a compass point for the bigger towns of Loughrea and Portumna. In 1980 it registered on the national consciousness because of the closure of its lead zinc mine and the loss of 330 jobs and £3.3 million in wages. For almost 20 years, the mine had been a boon to a secluded corner of Co Galway, and the effects of its closure have echoed through the decades since.

Tynagh is a quieter village now than it when the mine was open, but the hurling and traditional-music scenes are still vibrant. It is a typical Irish village: friendly, intensely local and feisty. The closure of its Garda station reinforces the community’s sense that the place doesn’t matter. In 1969, Tynagh station had three sergeants and 14 gardaí: in 1989, it had one sergeant and four gardaí. Until last night, it had one garda. Locals think the world of him.

“You had a station here and a squad car around. That is a great comfort to people,” says Frank Burke (no relation to Marie), who has lived and farmed in Tynagh all his life. His wife is a retired teacher and worked in the local school. “And the small services . . . people can get a passport done or a gun licence renewed locally. But most of all, they know that if they have a problem, Ollie is there. He knows the area, he knows people. If there wasn’t as much crime around the country, this wouldn’t be as big an issue. But this seems like the wrong time to be pulling back.”

Patrols and politics

The lament is the same across most of Ireland. A cluster of nine stations will close in east Galway alone. Seán Canney, an independent county councillor from Corofin, resigned his seat on the Joint Policing Committee (JPC) over the Government announcement. “While joint policing is trying to function, its entire point is being undermined in that it isn’t getting support from the Minister,” he says. “Alan Shatter comes along and slyly announces these closures. So the JPC felt like a box-ticking exercise to me, and I felt I couldn’t be part of something like that.”

Canney believes that people living in the heart of the heart of the country have never felt more vulnerable. A few days ago, he made a regular visit to an 89-year-old woman who lives alone; she was reluctant to open the door until she was certain it was him. The scare stories of siphoned fuel, swiped jewellery, cars and vans lingering outside unlit houses, vacant houses stripped of brass, stolen machinery; and thuggish robberies create nervousness, particularly in the darkest months of winter.

Shutting so many Garda stations heightens the unease. The signs advertising cash for gold and cash for metal seem to people living in the country to serve as a virtual incentive to thievery.

“See, we are dealing here with four different kinds of crime. There are the fly-by-night lads who go for the cash for gold,” says Francis Byrne, who runs a business in Kilconly, another village that is set to lose its station.

“Then there are the boys who go in and strip copper in vacant or new houses. Then there are the heavy-duty boys who go in robbing trailers and machinery for scrap metal or reselling. And there are the cattle and sheep rustlers. So we are really badly hit. And it’s the ransacking they do when they get in. The gardaí do their best, but they aren’t equipped. On several occasions, they hadn’t the cars strong enough to keep up with them.”

Shatter has emphasised that the idea behind the closure was not simply to cut costs but to ensure that Garda patrols will be more mobile. The theory is in keeping with modern policing. And perhaps there is an argument that the tradition of the Garda station as village sentry post has become outdated.

The Garda Representative Association was critical of the announcement, with its president, John Parker, articulating the common fear that is spreading through the country. “Patrols will be reduced and a safe breeding ground for criminals will fill the void,” Parker said in November.

In Tynagh, locals are sceptical that the gardaí in east Galway have the resources to adequately patrol their area.

“As far as we can see,” one woman says, “It means the gardaí are being asked to cover from Banagher bridge to Derrybrien [a distance of 60 km] . . . in a Fiesta.”

“And a lot of those squad cars have 200,000 miles on them at this stage,” Frank Burke adds.

Driving along the verdant lanes of east Galway, it becomes obvious just how dense the interior is and how long it can take to travel between villages. An abiding sense of community spirit means that many villages have established community-alert schemes, and those now seem more important than ever.

“We make a small difference; we had 23 elderly people whose homes were fitted with alarms and sensor lights. It gives them a bit more security,” Frank Burke says.

“But it is at the stage where people will take the law into their own hands. The church there was robbed three times in the last year . . . it took us months before we could even get an identification on the car. And I was talking to a man recently, a mild man, and he said: ‘If I see that car around the church again, it won’t be leaving it.’ People will start fighting back. When elderly people aren’t safe in their own homes . . . what has gone wrong with the country?”

Bright lights, big city

At the heart of this is the prevailing belief that the burnished corridors and offices of Leinster House are light years removed from the everyday realities of living beyond the streetlights in Ireland. The economic motivations for closing all these Garda stations make no allowance for how it feels to be 75 and living alone behind a flimsy lock, and takes no account of just how dark and remote the Irish countryside feels on midwinter nights. Perhaps the security of knowing that a garda was stationed in the nearest village was notional. But that peace of mind has now been removed.

Ciarán Cannon, the Minister of State for Skills and Training and TD for Galway East, broadly agrees with the decision to abandon the practice of gardaí sitting in stations in favour of mobile units patrolling country roads and villages. But he has articulated his concerns that the force does not have enough cars to make this possible. His Fine Gael constituency colleague, Paul Connaughton, understands the general dismay at the station closures.

“It should be said that some of the Garda stations did have very small opening hours. But I must admit myself, from talking to gardaí on the ground, that garda mobility is a big concern . . . meaning squad cars. There is no point in denying that there are a lot of people in rural areas who read newspapers and see on television stories about the rise in burglaries and then see their local station closing. Of course they will be concerned. What I want to see now is the Garda, with the Minister’s department, setting out a policing plan for these areas.”

Connaughton grew up in the east Galway town of Mountbellew and is well versed in the general sense that the quality of life in rural Ireland is in gradual and, it seems, irreversible decline. Although there is agreement that the drink-driving laws were absolutely necessary, there has been no attempt to legislate for the fact that they have helped to kill the tradition of the country pub.

“There are probably half as many pubs in my area as there were a decade ago,” he says. Canney sometimes gets the impression that people are mentally barricading themselves against the outside world, buying guard dogs and installing security systems and rarely answering doors after dark: entrenching themselves against a vague threat.

Loneliness, too, has become an issue: an IFA meeting he attended about recent floods drifted into a conversation about how difficult it was to socialise now that the habitual meeting points of the church gate and the pub are in decline.

On December 26th, Marie Burke noticed that there wasn’t a single car in Tynagh village. She didn’t have to flick back all that many years to recall St Stephen’s nights when Harney’s was chock-a-block from 8pm. The black joke going around Tynagh and the other villages is that at least people will be able to “chance a few” in the local now that the gardaí are gone. But in reality there is no appetite for that. People don’t want to break the law.

In Kilconly, a spate of break-ins and robberies before Christmas led to the Friday-night bingo crowd reducing by half. People closed the curtains and retreated.

On Thursday, the district court in Tuam heard of the harrowing experiences of Michael and Annette Masterson, proprietors of the Derreen Inn outside Abbeyknockmoy for over 30 years. Their pub has been robbed three times since July, raided and ransacked and its interior destroyed. Michael Masterson has suffered two heart attacks since the first robbery. In sentencing two defendents, both of whom had local addresses, judge Geoffrey Browne advocated using “more force” against such burglars. “I would like to say he should protect himself using other resources than a hurley stick,” he said. The inference was clear: people are going to have to protect themselves.

“The community-alert groups and the vigilante stuff will really have to get going again. But the thing is, we are all taxpayers down here,” says Francis Byrne.“We expect the same service as they do in towns.”

In 2005, the late John McGahern wrote in Memoir about growing up as the son of a Garda sergeant in the barracks in Cootehall, Co Leitrim. He recalled that the gardaí stationed there had to write up their bicycle patrols in ledgers. Many of these were fictitious, particularly on wet days and when nothing was happening, and they were jokingly referred to as “Patrols of the Imagination”. That was in the 1940s, and the template for rural policing did not greatly change for the rest of the century. But now that tradition has been dramatically inverted, and it is up to the people who live in those areas to imagine that the patrols are out there and, with luck, not too far away from them.

“It flies in the face of what rural Ireland has been and should be all about,” says Canney. “The whole concept of austerity at the moment seems to have set an agenda . . . The Garda stations are going; the post offices are closing . . . It is all denuding rural Ireland of its sense of community and of its existence.”

Going, going . . . Why Garda stations are closing

Of the 134 Garda stations that have already closed or are due to close next week, 85 per cent recorded fewer than a crime a week in 2011, and a third recorded fewer than 15 crimes in the entire year.

Tynagh recorded 15 crimes in 2011. These included one burglary and nine thefts, which are categorised as nonviolent theft from the person. A burglary involves trespass on a residence.

Of the 10 stations due to close in Co Galway under the latest round of closures, none recorded more than 25 crimes in 2011. Corrandulla, which closed last year, recorded 79 crimes in 2011. Leenane recorded three crimes – two burglaries and one theft– that year.

Announcing this latest round of 95 station closures in December, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter pointed out that 98 per cent of these stations are part-time, with 94 per cent open for no more than three hours a day. He has also pointed out that, even after the planned 2013 closures, 564 Garda stations will remain – “significantly more” than Northern Ireland, for example, which has 86 police stations for a population of 1.5 million people, with further closures planned; and Scotland, which has about 340 stations for 5.2 million people.

“The objective of consolidating our network of Garda stations is to ensure efficient and effective policing, and this strategy is working.

“Smart policing is not simply about bricks and mortar. It is about community policing and the visible presence of gardaí on our streets,” Shatter said, pointing to technological developments and ongoing investment in the Garda transport fleet, which have led to a “more mobile, responsive and flexible” police service. - PAMELA DUNCAN