Mr President, Delegates and distinguished guests.
Thank you for your kind words of welcome.
As you know, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Brian Lenihan T.D., cannot be here today as he is representing Ireland at the St Patrick’s celebrations in the United States where our country is in the spotlight for a whole week of events. When he asked me to stand in for him here today, I was delighted. I know the Garda Commissioner will also be addressing you in more detail on some of the points raised here today. I would like to pay tribute to his energetic leadership and to the sterling contribution of his predecessor Noel Conroy who retired recently. I have always had the greatest respect for An Garda Síochána and as a Minister I am proud to be part of a Government that has shown its strong support for the force. It is a pleasure and an honour for me to be present at your Annual Delegate Conference.
I note from the motions of your conference that you will be touching on a number of different issues ranging from force strength to pay, promotion, transport, equipment, divisional boundaries and other issues. Your President has highlighted some of these issues. I will not attempt to debate every last issue in my short address, but I would like to make some comments on some of these issues and on developments in general, and I will of course bring all of the points made to the attention of the Minister.
Investment in An Garda Síochána
The Garda budget now stands at €1.6billion, an 11% increase on 2007 which in itself was a record year. In part, this reflects the significant increase in the strength of the force, which under the Programme for Government will reach 15,000 in 2010. Under this intensive recruitment process, 1,100 trainees are entering the Garda College each year, and I want to pay tribute to the College authorities for the way they have responded to this challenge. The number of posts at Sergeant and Inspector ranks will also increase in proportion to ensure that this important first line of management keeps pace with this expansion. Also, the Commissioner’s policing plan for this year will see a further 270 Reserve Gardaí recruited.
The €1.6 billion budget also enables continued significant investment in equipment and modern technology. For example a total of €99m is allocated in 2008 for Information Technology and Communications related projects. These include:
• The provision of a digital radio service to An Garda Síochána
• The continued rollout of Email services
• A Major Investigations System
• Further rollout of the new Automated Fingerprint Identification System
• An Automated Ballistics Identifications System
• Automated Number Plate Recognition System
In addition, the Minister recently launched the new helicopter for the Garda Air Support Unit which represents a significant investment in the air support capability of An Garda Síochána and is an essential feature of modern policing. There is also a major ongoing programme of investment in the Garda fleet aimed at both improving and expanding the fleet of vehicles available to Gardaí. Over the past two years over 1,700 new vehicles have been acquired – representing over 70% of the Garda fleet. The investment programme has also provided much needed anti-stab and anti-ballistic vests for frontline members of An Garda Síochána.
In conjunction with this, the estimate for Garda overtime in 2008 is €107m - an increase of €18m on last year’s original estimate. This will aid the planned deployment of a visible policing service in a flexible, effective and targeted way. This represents almost 3.4 million extra man hours of policing by uniformed Garda and by special units throughout the State and, as the Garda Commissioner recently confirmed, will facilitate the continuation of Operation Anvil which has proven to be absolutely essential in the fight against crime.
The Government is also engaged in significantly increasing the level of civilian support within the Force. This will not only release Gardaí who are currently engaged in administrative work for operational duty but it will also bring to the Force additional expertise in specialist areas. In the last few weeks advertisements have been placed for Directors of Information Communications Technology, Change Management and Head of Legal Affairs. This process of increased civilian support will significantly enhance the capacity of An Garda Síochána and will support you in allowing you to concentrate on the policing challenges ahead, particularly those associated with the public demand for an increased uniformed presence on our streets.
Issues raised by the President
I listened to the President's comments on pay and benchmarking. While I am limited in what I can say about the outcome of benchmarking, I do know that the President told the Minister, when he met your Association recently, that he will be making a submission on how your Association might have an input into pay negotiations.
The Minister will of course carefully consider any proposal, but it is worth making the point that the pay increases agreed at central level are applied in full to An Garda Síochána. There is no question of any inequality. That said, if the system can be improved then we will look at that. One specific point raised by the President which I noted, and which he highlighted as an equality issue, was the payment of travel expenses following transfers. I believe that this matter is in fact being resolved and was discussed recently at the Conciliation and Arbitration Council.
In the Garda Policing Plan for 2008 which the Minister has approved, the Garda Commissioner proposes to make changes to Garda boundaries in a number of areas around the country. Indeed, our host county Meath will become a new Division. The aim is to achieve a closer alignment between the functional areas of local authorities and Garda Divisional boundaries. Your President has voiced some concerns about the detailed implementation of this realignment, but I'm sure that any such difficulties can be overcome, and I know that Garda management are working hard on this in consultation with the Garda Associations.
The move makes sense, and will be an important step in enabling An Garda Síochána work more closely with Local Authorities and the important new Joint Policing Committees, which are due to be rolled out nationwide. I firmly believe that one of the most significant innovations of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 has been the introduction of Joint Policing Committees. They will provide a forum where Gardaí and local representatives can consult each other, and discuss and make recommendations on matters affecting local policing. They are also an opportunity for local Gardaí to influence Local Authority thinking on the way in which local developments can impact on policing.
The Committees monitor two broad areas; firstly, the levels and patterns of crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour in an area, including in particular patterns and levels of misuse of alcohol and drugs: secondly, the broader issue of the factors underlying and contributing to crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour. These are key policing issues which your President has touched on, and improved local partnership between the Garda Síochána and community interests will be an important step in meeting these challenges.
Of course, this is only part of the answer to the problems of disorder and anti-social behaviour. Let me turn to another, and let me be clear about it. We have a problem with binge drinking in this country. This is leading to public disorder and anti-social behaviour. You know the realities of this situation better than anyone. While there is a tendency to focus on misbehaviour by young people, in fact people who are older and who should know better are also involved. The Minister has therefore asked the Government Alcohol Advisory Group to urgently examine key aspects of the law governing the sale and consumption of alcohol, including those directed towards combating excessive and under-age alcohol consumption. Issues of particular concern to the Minister are the increase in the number of supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations with off-licenses and how alcohol products are sold in such outlets, including below–cost selling and special promotions.
The Minister has asked the Group to report to him by the end of this month. He intends to bring forward urgent proposals for changes in the law which, with the support of both Houses, he hopes will be enacted and implemented before the summer recess. In parallel with this, work will continue on the drafting of a comprehensive Sale of Alcohol Bill, which is already included in the Government Legislation Programme for 2008 and which will modernise and streamline the law in this area.
The policing priorities established by the Minister for An Garda Síochána for 2008 also show the focus of this Government on addressing the important areas of policing and crime prevention and detection, and are backed up by the substantial resources which the Government is continuing to provide to An Garda Síochána. In addition to targeting the use of knives for violent attacks, among the priorities the Minister has set are combating public disorder, alcohol-related behaviour and tackling the use of illegal firearms and offensive weapons generally.
The Garda Commissioner has taken these priorities into account in drawing up the Policing Plan for 2008. The Policing Plan maps out the key objectives and actions required for the effective policing of our towns, cities and neighbourhoods, as well as the ongoing modernisation and development of An Garda Síochána in 2008. As part of this work, each Garda Assistant Commissioner has been tasked by the Commissioner with preparing and implementing a public order strategy, with the aim of increasing enforcement and detection and reducing recorded incidence of public disorder and anti-social behaviour. These strategies will include the preparation and monitoring of operational plans for identified public order hot-spots, including licensed premises and dancing venues, late-night food outlets and public transportation hubs, taxi ranks and Accident and Emergency Departments of city hospitals, in particular at times which have been identified as high-risk for such incidents, especially Thursday to Sunday nights and bank holiday weekends. There will be additional high-visibility uniform patrols by members of An Garda Síochána on beat, mobile and mountain-bike duties.
There will also be increased enforcement of related legislation, including the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act, 2006 relating to behaviour warnings and civil and behaviour orders for adults and juveniles. The Gardaí will liaise with the licensees of on and off-licences, including convenience stores, with particular emphasis on the sale and supply of alcohol to persons under 18 years and the power to apply for closure and exclusion orders against licensees where offences contrary to the Misuse of Drugs Acts are detected.
Delegates, I recognise that there are considerable policing challenges to be faced in the year ahead. I want also to acknowledge the very important contribution that you, and the members you represent at Sergeant and Inspector ranks, bring to the force on a daily basis in responding to those challenges. As first line supervisors to Gardaí, your experience and support is vital to the smooth running of the organisation.
You are the mentors of new recruits and of the members of the Garda reserve and you play a critical role in their development. You can take rightful pride in the work you do in safeguarding the public and the democratic institutions of this State. I thank you for your support and for the work that you do. You have the support and confidence of the Government and of the Irish people. I wish you every success in your mission and the discharge of your responsibility in the year ahead.
Mr. President and delegates, thank you again for inviting me here today. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
18 March 2008