Justice Minister 'absolutely open' to holding talks with garda officials

Justice Minister 'absolutely open' to holding talks with garda officials

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is "absolutely open" to holding talks with garda officials in order to prevent unprecedented strike action that risks leaving the public defenceless in just six weeks' time writes Political Correspondent Fiachra O'Cionnaith.

The Tánaiste outlined her position as she was urged by the opposition to avoid a damaging "Mexican stand-off" that will put the safety of communities in jeopardy and cause havoc across the country.

Speaking during the latest Leaders Questions Dáil debate, Ms Fitzgerald faced repeated criticism from Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin that her Government has failed to take garda pay concerns seriously until now.

However, responding to the claims, she said the coalition is fully aware of the problems after the force and is doing everything possible to avert strike action.

Expressing "disappointment" at the strike announcement and rejection of a previously outlined deal put on the table by Government last Friday, Ms Fitzgerald said any work stoppages are not in the public's interest.

While acknowledging the difficulties facing gardai, some of whom she was told are being forced to sleep in cars as they cannot afford accommodation, she said the only way to resolve the dispute is to hear "directly" for garda officials through urgent talks.

"I want to hear directly from them. The resolution of these disputes can only be through engagement.

"It would be most unfortunate if, rather than engaging, further action would be contemplated that would not be in the best interests of our communities and An Garda Siochana.

"I am in no doubt whatsoever about the seriousness of this issue. I am absolutely open to meeting to resolve the outstanding issues," she said.

Ms Fitzgerald also said she is willing to seek the establishment of a public service pay commission "shortly" to address long-term pay problems among State employs.

However, despite the comments she faced significant criticism over her and Government's handling of the garda dispute until now.

Speaking during the same debate, Fianna Fáil justice spokesperson Jim O Callaghan warned Ireland is facing an "unprecedented" situation which could "threaten the safety of the State", a situation which risks being exacerbated by a "Mexican stand-off" between Government and gardai.

Hitting out at an alleged Government reluctance to tackle the issue in the five months since the coalition was formed, the opposition justice spokesperson said it has ignored a "rampant demoralisation in the force".

Mr O Callaghan said that in recent years gardai have suffered pay cuts, staff reductions, the closure of more than 100 garda stations, and a belief their "grievances" have not been acknowledged by Government.

"Can I also ask that the Government does not allow a Mexican stand-off to develop. What is your plan to resolve dispute?

"I fear the Government does not yet accept the seriousness and danger of the announcement [to strike]. We hope what is going to happen here is not what happened with Dublin bus, it is imperative the Government gets involved," he said.

The remark was repeated by Sinn Féin justice spokesperson Jonathan O Brien, who said there must not be any "grand-standing" on an issue that risks public safety and has resulted in some gardai being "forced to sleep in their cars".

Warning that it would be "naive" and a "huge mistake" to believe gardai will not proceed with strike action, he said "what everyone wants to know is what is the next step, are you waiting for them to come back to you or will you engage with them".

Mr O Callaghan repeated the comments at a separate media event to launch a new bill seeking reforms on how judges are appointed in Ireland, saying Government's handling of the issue to date has been ineffective.

"We've got six weeks to resolve this dispute, we need to resolve it promptly. Ministers can't just stand aside as Shane Ross stood aside in the dispute with Dublin bus and the bus workers union.

"What is important is we don't allow a Mexican stand-off to develop where nothing is done for a period of weeks," he warned.

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