Local policing committee leaders have given a mixed response to the new Garda policing plan, with some saying it would be a “total disaster”, while others said it had to be “given a chance”.
But all the chairmen of the joint policing committees spoken to agreed that the new policing model must result in additional garda resources on the ground – which Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said the plan will involve.
The Irish Examiner interviewed outgoing and incoming chairmen of six JPCs from across the country – from Cork to Louth, Donegal to Tipperary and from Longford to Waterford.
The Commissioner's plan will see the creation of new “super divisions” by merging 18 divisions into nine.
The divisions being merged are: Cork North and Cork West; Clare and Tipperary; Mayo and Roscommon/Longford; Donegal and Sligo/Leitrim; Cavan/Monaghan and Louth; Meath and Westmeath; Laois/Offaly and Kildare; Wicklow and Wexford; Kilkenny/Carlow and Waterford.
This will mean nine of the divisions will lose their divisional headquarters to their merged areas.
In addition, all divisions will change internally with superintendents no longer having a geographical responsibility for a district, but having a specific role across the entire division – either crime, community engagement or performance.
On paper, the plan will see nine fewer chief superintendent positions and around 30 fewer superintendent positions.
Commissioner Harris has stated there will be 1,800 extra gardaí performing operational duties by 2021 – 1,000 from releasing gardaí from office duties and 800 through recruitment.
The police chief said he would be visiting JPCs in the autumn on his plan.
Fianna Fáil councillor Roger Kennedy, outgoing chair of the Tipperary JPC said: “We will go from seven superintendents [in Tipperary] to four. It's a total disaster.
He said Tipperary was a mainly rural county, though it had nine towns, Clonmel the biggest.
“It will leave rural areas more vulnerable, whatever the intention is,” he said.
He said crime rates had been dropping over the years and said to change the system that was working was wrong.
He said the northern end of Tipperary was closer to Monaghan than to the southern end of the county, adding: “It's a very long county and now they are adding in another.”
He said having the divisional headquarters in either Thurles or Ennis will affect the other county and “slow things down”. He pointed out that people will drive through Limerick, under the tunnel, to get from Thurles to Ennis.
Fianna Fáil councillor Frank O'Flynn, outgoing chair for Cork County JPC (covering Cork North and Cork West) had concerns at the possible loss to community policing from such a huge geographical area, stretching from Fermoy to Castletownbere, and from Millstreet to Youghal.
The Fermoy councillor said gardaí had been a “tremendous help” improving community policing and “local goodwill” in north Cork but feared the larger division might lose that.
“The big thing is, if this plan increases garda visibility on the ground,” he said. “If it does that, I'd welcome it.”
But he said he hoped the divisional HQ would stay in Fermoy. Cork West divisional HQ is in Bandon.
Sinn Féin Cllr Gerry McMonagle, outgoing chair of the Donegal JPC, said he was “very surprised” at the amalgamation with Sligo/Leitrim, saying there was no consultation.
“I don't think Commissioner Harris should be surprised that people are angry and frustrated,” he said.
He said Donegal was near Derry, a city of 120,000 people, and that cross border crime was rife and Brexit was coming, adding:
He said Donegal currently needed extra gardaí, more vehicles and working radios.
He asked where the evidence was to support the commissioner's claim there would be 1,800 extra gardaí, saying he wanted to see “meat on the bones” of that contention.
He said the local superintendents in Donegal were mostly local and knew the area and crime, but that they didn't have enough personnel.
“If they are going to merge, it would be a retrograde step,” he said. “It would mean fewer gardaí on the beat and not more, as the commissioner said.”
But the incoming chairman of the Louth JPC, Cllr Sean Kelly (Fianna Fail) said the merging of Louth with Cavan/Monaghan would be a “good thing” in terms of having “a whole section of the border under one chief superintendent”.
He said: “We can't jump up and down and just complain, give this a chance.”
But he said the new plan must result in “more gardaí on the street”. He said he was concerned at losing the experience of certain senior officers, saying that would be a “major loss”.
He argued that the divisional headquarters should stay in Dundalk, given the population of Louth and its towns and the serious crime problem in the county, seen most starkly in Drogheda.
He warmly welcomed Commissioner Harris's promise to visit JPCs.
Cllr Eddie Mulligan (Fianna Fáil), outgoing chair of Waterford JPC, said he feared a dilution of garda resources in the county to Kilkenny/Carlow and that there was a lot of speculation that the divisional headquarters would be in Kilkenny.
He said this would be “detrimental” to Waterford and the city, which he said was one of five cities listed under the Government's National Planning Framework to drive regional growth to 2040. He said the population of the city was expected to grow by 50% in that period.
He said they had built up a very successful community policing model in the last two years and feared for its continuation.
Cllr Mulligan said Waterford city was being “treated differently” to the other cities, Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick, which were retaining their existing divisions.
Cllr Seamus Butler (Fianna Fáil), incoming chair of the Longford JPC, said the commissioner was “not wasting his time” in reforms.
“I welcome more autonomy to the regions in the plan, very much,” he said.
Longford/Roscommon will merge with Mayo.
He said Longford was already underresourced and that they needed “visible policing on a daily basis”.
He said: “Whether the new model increases that remains to be seen, but if regions are allowed to deploy the resources, it should. The big thing is resources”.
He said he would not like to see Longford losing one of its two superintendents. He said the Commissioner's visit to JPCs was a “great move”.
Separately, Richard Kennedy, Irish Farmers' Association Deputy President and Crime and Security spokesperson said the current policing model was not working and that they had lobbied consistently for increased garda presence in rural areas.
“The new proposed operating model will result in an additional 1,800 gardaí working on the frontline, in the community,” he said.