For almost five years now, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has attempted to introduce a new roster for the force. When he was appointed in 2018, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland had just published its report on Garda reform, which found the roster in existence since 2012 required urgent replacement. Harris began lengthy negotiations with staff associations but his proposals were met with resistance from both the Garda Representative Association (GRA) and Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (Agsi).
The emergency Garda rosters based on 12-hour shifts which were then introduced for the pandemic have proved very popular with the 11,000 rank and file gardaí, who now want them to remain. Longer shifts mean gardaí work fewer days and are entitled to more unsocial hours allowances. Harris argues these rosters are expensive and result in a loss of 60 hours per Garda member per year. Since there is no agreement on any new rosters, he intends to revert to pre-pandemic arrangements from November 6th. He then plans to seek agreement for a new long-term roster. Agsi is in favour of this approach. But the GRA is opposed and its members have voted no confidence in the commissioner by a majority of almost 99 per cent. The association now appears set on a programme of industrial action.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has been notably absent from the dispute. Apart from meeting the associations on Wednesday, she has for months preferred to leave the matter to the commissioner. That position is not sustainable, especially in the face of a possible withdrawal of service, a strike in all but name. The GRA’s decision to hold a vote of no confidence in Harris was always unwise. Personalising the dispute against the commissioner is hardly conducive to progress. It should also be noted that the GRA’s record in opposing roster reform predates Harris’s term as commissioner. GRA members voted against, and therefore blocked, new rosters after they were put forward by then commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan in 2016.
During the pandemic, gardaí were rightly praised by the Policing Authority for their performance. The strength of the connection between the Garda and communities across the State came into its own. But gardaí cannot reasonably expect to remain indefinitely on rosters designed for lockdown. It is clear new rosters that equip the Garda to respond to a changing society are needed for the long term. The details of such arrangements can only be agreed over time, through talks. GRA and Agsi concerns should be heard and factored into any outcome. But the time for working rosters designed exclusively for a specific moment of crisis, when virtually the whole of Irish society was shut down, has long since passed. The GRA should reconsider its current strategy.