The village that shouted no to closure

A Garda station is not just bricks and mortars, as a certain minister has suggested.

Villagers in Kilbrittain insist stations in rural Ireland are a visible symbol of a Garda presence — and a likely deterrent to criminals.

And locals in the West Cork village spared no effort in ensuring “all in authority” were aware of their resistance to any proposed closure of their local Garda station.

The village was not prepared to let the axe fall on its Garda station and, so far, it has succeeded.

Nine kilometres down the road, Ballinspittle Garda Station will officially close this week. There, locals have accepted assurances from gardaí that the quality of the service provided “will be as good, if not better”.

Kilbrittain believes it may also have been in the firing line. But Con McCarthy, chairman of the West Cork Garda Station retention committee, said: “We didn’t sit around and wait for the inevitable. We let the authorities know we’re up for the fight.”

And he strongly indicated it was not by chance Justice Minister Alan Shatter or the Garda Commissioner let the village off the hook.

“We were worried when we first heard, about 18 months ago, our station was earmarked for closure,” he said.

“Last year, An Post closed down our post office but, within months, it was opened again. We mounted a strong campaign and we kept it open. And now it’s thriving.”

He said: “We feel, here, the main planks of any village are a school, a Garda station, a post office, its churches and a community centre. They all serve to keep a community alive. If any of those main planks are removed, a community dies or becomes damaged.”

All types of group in Kilbrittain became involved to keep the Garda station open, including the Young at Heart, which represents the elderly, the Tidy Village Committee, Community Alert and the Community Association. Eileen Hayes, who heads Young at Heart, said losing a local service would “tear the heart” out of the village.

John Butler was an organiser of a public meeting in Kilbrittain in Oct 2011 which led to the formation of the West Cork Garda Retention Group. He said Kilbrittain approached the potential dilemma from a community perspective.

“We just didn’t throw up our hands and roar and shout,” he said. “We have a vibrant community here and we’re determined to preserve it.”

An accountant by profession, he said Garda authorities had cited cost-cutting measures as one of the reasons for the proposed closure of rural stations.

“When we examined the figures, we discovered the annual cost of maintaining and keeping the Kilbrittain station open was €3,000.

“We also offered to have the community row in and provide some sort of financial support, if need be. But the department didn’t come back to us on that issue.”

A number of local activists travelled to Dublin and sat in as observers when Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan addressed a Joint Oireachtas Justice Committee. The group also met with TDs and Deputy Garda Commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan.

“We had a good discussion with her and advanced our arguments why the stations in West Cork should not close,” said Con McCarthy. “We feel some of the Garda authorities, at the highest level, are not aware of the importance of having a community-based garda, a garda that is in constant touch with the people and one who has earned locals’ respect because of his or her commitment to the community.

“That’s what we have here in Kilbrittain in Garda John McCarthy. He knows every family, knows the elderly and the young. They trust him. He’s an integral part of our community.

“The authorities in Dublin, we believe, were using the Pulse figures on crime nationally to decide the future of many of the rural Garda stations.

“It’s unfair to communities where crime figures were not high. Those communities are being punished, as such, for being crime-free.

“What amazes us is that crime prevention, especially the role of the local garda in curbing crime, is not taken into account.

“Our local garda attends a weekly meeting with the elderly, visits the national school on a regular basis and speaks to the senior classes and, generally, makes himself accessible to the community. He makes it his business to be on duty when it’s festival week to ensure that things don’t get out of hand, such as young people abusing alcohol.

“His presence in the village offers peace of mind to everyone.”

Eileen Hayes said, on average, 30 older people attend a weekly event in the community centre, organised by Young at Heart.

“They all know Garda McCarthy; they can talk to him about any fears or concerns. They wouldn’t respond in the same way with a garda coming into the village for the day from Bandon, 12km away, or elsewhere,” she said.

“Vulnerable people, especially the elderly, are going to be more vulnerable if Garda stations close. They would be at the mercy of the criminal.”

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