Check against Delivery 

Mr President, Distinguished guests, members of the Central Executive Committee, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for your kind words of welcome and your invitation to address you this evening. I am delighted to be here to listen to your views and to share some thoughts with you.

Tragic deaths
This occasion is, however, tinged with sadness when we recall the loss of one of your members and colleagues last October in terrible flooding. Like too many of his colleagues before him, Garda Ciarán Jones gave his life that others might be saved, and it is only right that we should all think of him at this time and honour his memory.

It is also right that we recall the tragic death of Sergeant Feargal McHugh who recently lost his life returning home from duty, and pay tribute to the contribution he made to the Garda Síochána and to the public.

Contribution to the public good
Let me as well pay a wider tribute to the contribution which the Garda Síochána make to the public good. Of course, at conferences like this it is natural for specific difficulties or concerns to be raised, and I will comment in a moment on issues raised by your President. But let us not forget the huge achievements of the Garda Síochána and of your members.

I regret, Mr President that, on occasions such as this, there is talk of Garda morale being low. I do not believe this to be so, nor is there any reason for the low morale you speak of. We have, in An Garda Síochána, a professional, well trained, dedicated Force which has, over the past 12 months, had substantial successes across a broad range of operational fronts. The Force has the full support of Government and is widely admired by the general public for the work it does. It is a Force skilled to meet the challenges it faces under the sound leadership and direction of the Commissioner. Amongst many other things, the Force has been successful in the apprehension, prosecution and conviction of a broad range of offenders, many of them individuals who pose a serious threat and danger to the community and who are engaged in organised crime and who are now behind bars. There is every reason for morale to be high, for members of the Force to take pride in the work they do and for all members of the Force to enter into the next 12 months with confidence in their capacity to fulfill their public duties.

What is a cause of concern to me is alarmist and irresponsible claims that the Force is not up to the task of modern policing and that the closure of some Garda Stations, which I am advised no longer have any operational significance, is going to make some areas a breeding ground for crime and make senior citizens more vulnerable. Even more damaging are suggestions that some unspecified action will be taken by members of the GRA to resist change and undermine Garda leadership. It is talk such as this which I believe is damaging to morale, wrongly misrepresents the position of most members of the Force and risks undermining the public’s confidence in the professionalism, capacity and dedication of the Force to public duty.

Reduction in crime
Look at the official Crime Statistics for 2011 which have been published recently by the Central Statistics Office. While some categories of property crime are up, the overall trend shows a decrease in most types of crime. The categories showing a decrease include homicide, assault, criminal damage and drug and public order offences. Of course there are a number of factors behind these reductions, but your dedication in enforcing the law and tackling crime has been crucial. The overall decrease represents a substantial achievement for the Garda Síochána and for law enforcement and crime prevention in Ireland.

I particularly welcome the reduction of more than a quarter in the number of murders. This reflects in part a reduction in the number of gang-related killings in 2011, against a backdrop of significant enforcement as well as legislative measures to tackle and disrupt serious organised crime. In this regard, I have made it clear to the Garda Commissioner that I am open to considering any additional changes in the law which the Gardaí believe would be helpful in tackling the activities of organised criminals.

The statistics also show a downward trend in dangerous driving offences. This encouraging trend is in keeping with other positive developments in road safety - notably the reduction in the number of deaths on the roads. Again, the achievements in this area are a clear indication of the positive impact which the work of the Garda Síochána is having in our communities.

It is true that the position with respect to property offences is somewhat mixed. While the overall theft figures are broadly stable, and the figures for robbery offences show a decrease of over 8%, I am concerned that the statistics show an increase in burglary of approximately 8%. But even here the Garda Síochána are now employing targeted strategies to counter this trend and have had major successes within the last 10 days. I want to acknowledge the work of the Garda National Crime Prevention Unit and the Crime Prevention Officers at Divisional level who provide important support to help reduce burglaries.

This overall reduction in crime is a hugely positive message for the public, and a mark of your determination and professionalism, and we should not lose sight of the fact that this reduction has been effected at a time of budgetary constraint.

Policing of the visits of Queen Elizabeth and President Obama
Speaking of professionalism, there surely could not be any better example than the policing of the visits last year by Queen Elizabeth and President Obama. The importance and scale of these visits presented huge challenges to the Garda Síochána. Literally thousands of members were detailed to ensure that the visits were safe and successful. The logistical challenges in terms of planning, accommodation, transport and communications were immense. I know that everyone involved showed patience, dedication and flexibility in what was an unprecedented operation. You also stood up to the thugs who sought to disrupt the visits and you dealt effectively with serious threats to security posed by a variety of small groups and, in particular, by subversives intent on returning this island to murder and mayhem. The whole country could see the huge contribution you made to what was a national success story.

Economic difficulties
It is especially praiseworthy that you have shown this dedication and commitment in difficult times. And these are difficult times. At an individual level there have been pay reductions, and for the Force in general there are constraints on its budget. I totally understand how difficult this is. But we must all honestly face up to why this must be done.

This year, even after reductions in pay and in budgets, even after all of the other measures which have been taken, we will as a country still spend some €16bn more on public services than we generate in income. You don’t need me to tell you that thi s is unsustainable. A great deal has been done to stabilise our national finances. We are now going in the right direction. We will get there, but it will be tough. And there is no point in anyone pretending that we can increase public expenditure, whether on the Garda Síochána or on other public services.

Need for reform
Instead, what we must do, working together, is to reform the way we deliver public services. We need to be more efficient. We need to have better work practices. We need more joined-up thinking. And, with your co-operation, this is happening.

New Garda roster
Under the Croke Park Agreement, which I believe has been unfairly criticised, there is real reform under way. A perfect example is the new Garda roster system which is due to be introduced later this month. I fully recognise that this will be a hugely significant change in the working lives of members of the Garda Síochána. But this really can be a win-win. There will be more Gardaí on duty when they are needed most, and there will also be a better work/life balance for members, with the new roster achieving compliance with the EU Working Time Directive. I want to acknowledge the positive way in which your Association, and indeed the other associations, have engaged in the development of what will be a major reform in the delivery of the policing service.

Faster compensation
Other areas of reform include a new Garda Compensation system which will reduce the legal costs involved, while speeding up the payments of awards to members maliciously injured on duty. I will circulate legislation introducing this measure later this year, and I look forward to its speedy passage through the Oireachtas.

Legal assistance for members
Another issue on which I am pleased to say that progress has been made is the formal introduction of a scheme for the provision of legal assistance to members of the Garda Síochána who are charged with criminal offences where the alleged acts are directly related to the performance of the members’ functions. This scheme has been the subject of discussions at the Garda Conciliation Council and the final result is a good example of a result that can be reached when both parties engage with a common purpose.

Closure of Garda stations
Of course, not all of the changes under way have been welcomed. Criticism has been voiced of the fact that, over the course of this year, 39 Garda stations will close and a further 10 will have reduced public opening hours at night time. Of course, eight of those being officially closed have, in fact, not been open or operational for a number of years, one going back as far as 1986. I have been criticised more recently for saying that I expect that there will be more closures in 2013 as part of the ongoing rationalisation of the Garda Station network. I believe it is the critics, including critics in other political parties, who have some explaining to do. Are they seriously saying that the Garda station network must remain exactly as it was at the foundation of the State? Are they arguing that every single Garda station must be preserved forever? Can anyone plausibly contend that we absolutely need 703 Garda stations in such a small country or even all of the 664 that will remain following the announced closures. The country has been transformed almost beyond recognition since the 1920s, with changes in technology, transport and communicatio n s that could not have been imagined back then, but we are asked to believe that this should have no effect whatever on even a single Garda station. This is simply not credible and it is not sustainable. An interesting comparison can be made with Northern Ireland. In the year 2000, there were approximately 160 police stations in Northern Ireland. Today the number is just over 80, and I understand that the Policing Board is considering proposals to reduce that number further.

A focus of the criticism is that there are only modest cash savings to be made as a result of these closures. But this simply is not the point. This is not solely about making savings, although some savings will be made. It is about the more efficient deployment of available resources. Can it honestly be argued that it is better to have a Garda sitting in a station in the expectation of a caller – perhaps about the signing of a passport application or some other administrative matter - rather than the member being on patrol in the local community?

This is why there is no threat to the policing model for rural Ireland. That policy is and will remain in place. In fact, it is the firm objective of this Government to ensure that members of the Garda Síochána are freed up from unnecessary administrative tasks and are in a position to carry out the functions that they have been trained to do – policing in communities throughout the country.

Garda Numbers
Garda numbers are, of course, reducing. They stood at just under 14,400 on 31st December 2010. As of today, there are approximately 13,650 members of the Force. So there has been a reduction of just under 800 over the period of 15 months since then - not 2,000 as your President was reported as saying yesterday. It is, of course, correct that we are unable presently to recruit new members to the Force. The reduction in numbers and the embargo on recruitment is a direct consequence of the financial difficulties of the State and is needed to meet public expenditure reduction targets prescribed by the Troika - that is the EU, ECB and IMF. This is the legacy the Government has inherited from its predecessors. Our obligation to reduce public expenditure impacts on every aspect of Government and the manner in which we deliver public services, and neither An Garda Síochána nor any other State Agency is immune. In order to ensure no future Government causes such an economic and financial catastrophe, as you all know a referendum is being held at the end of May which, if it receives majority support, will curtail not only such excessive expenditure by future Irish Governments but excessive expenditure by Governments throughout the European Union. By meeting our obligations to reduce public expenditure we benefit from the substantial financial assistance we are receiving to bridge the gap between the State’s income and its expenditure. We should never lose sight of the fact that it is this financial assistance, in the amount of €16 Billion this year, which ensures we can pay the salaries at their current level of all of those who work in the public service, including the salaries of your members. Whilst we cannot pretend we are still living in the world of the Celtic Tiger, the truth is the number of Gardaí in today’s Force reflects the membership of 2007 and is substantially greater than the number in the Force during the worst of the Northern Ireland troubles.

In the context of reduced Garda numbers we must make the best possible use of the resources available to us in delivering public services. This applies equally to the Garda Síochána as it does to the health service or other local Government services. It is not just a case of doing more with less – it is rather a case of being smarter about how we deliver that service at a time of reducing resources. The outstanding performance of the Gardaí during 2011 and in the first quarter of 2012 clearly illustrates its capacity for smart policing.

The shortage of Garda vehicles
Another area of criticism is the Garda fleet. Let me be straight about this. I accept that the budget for the fleet is constrained. I would like to see the fleet renewed at a faster pace, but we have to work within available resources. But let’s also keep this in perspective. Even now, there are more vehicles in the fleet than in 2007. In 2007 there were just over 2,200, today there are just under 2,600. Forty new Garda cars have been purchased and these are coming on stream as we speak. Additional vehicles may also be purchased this year as a new contract for the supply of vehicles is nearing completion. I know that there has been some discussion at this conference about alternative ways of providing for the fleet, such as leasing rather than purchase, and I am sure that Garda management will explore every option which might improve efficiency.

Temporary and early releases from prison
I know that concerns have been expressed in relation to temporary and early release of prisoners from custody. Temporary release can have a very useful role in gradually preparing suitable offenders for release, and can help to re-integrate an offender into the community in a planned way. Risk to the community can be reduced by planned re-integration of offenders, rather than a sudden return to the community on the completion of their full sentence.

The role of the Irish Prison Service is to provide safe and secure custody, and to manage the sentences of persons committed to it by the Courts in a way which maximises the rehabilitation and resettlement of prisoners. The management of a prisoner’s sentence is based on a risk assessment and may involve structured early release or in appropriate cases transfer to an open centre.

I refer to transfers to open centres in appropriate cases for a reason. I know that a great deal of hurt was caused by the transfer to Loughan House of Martin McDermott and his subsequent escape. Let me be clear. What happened was wrong. Martin McDermott was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for the manslaughter of Garda Gary McLoughlin and should never have been transferred to Loughan House. The Prison Service has acknowledged that it was wrong for such a prisoner, given the gravity of the offence he committed and his background, to have been transferred from a closed prison to Loughan House. A report on the background to the mistaken transfer of Martin McDermott to Loughan House was completed and published by me within 2 weeks of his escape and capture, and the Director General of the Prison Service has assured me that measures have been put in place to ensure that such an error is never made again.

Martin McDermott is currently in custody in Northern Ireland, serving a 4 month sentence for assaulting a PSNI Officer, resisting arrest and criminal damage. He will be subject to a European Arrest Warrant in due course.

Legislation to protect Gardaí from assault
I know that concern has also been expressed at this conference about assaults on members of the Garda Síochána. I want to make clear my utter condemnation of any person who assaults a member of the Garda Síochána. I am aware of the case of a colleague of yours who was recently assaulted while engaged in a deportation flight, and I wish him a speedy recovery.

I believe it is absolutely right that the law already makes it a specific and serious offence to assault or threaten to assault a member of the Garda Síochána acting in the execution of his or her duty. This offence, which originally applied to assaults on Gardaí, prison officers and members of the Defence Forces, was first enacted in section 19 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994, with a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment. Section 185 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 extended the protection of this offence to other emergency and health personnel, and also increased the maximum penalty to 7 years imprisonment. And let me be clear - I will have no hesitation in bringing forward proposals for additional measures if that is necessary.

Mr President, as I said at the outset, I was delighted to accept the invitation to speak here today and respond to the issues you raised. I had hoped that we could meet recently, but of course I understand how busy you have been in finalising plans for the new roster. I hope to meet you in the coming weeks, as I am interested in hearing your more detailed views on all of the issues we have touched on today.

I greatly appreciate the invitation to be here at your conference. It gives me a chance to hear your concerns, but also an opportunity to express what I genuinely believe is the very real public respect and support for the achievements of the Garda Síochána. Day in, day out, I see the work you do on behalf of the public. Work which is often difficult, and sometimes dangerous. Work which can be quiet and unobtrusive, but which is none the less vital for that. And then there are those occasions, such as the policing of last year’s visits, when the whole country feels a special pride in their national police force. I share that pride, and I will always stand up for you.

I wish you well in your conference deliberations, I wish you a safe return to your Districts and Divisions, I wish you a successful implementation of the new roster system. I would like to record my thanks to you, to all the delegates here and indeed to all members of the Garda Síochána for their loyal and dedicated service and I hope to see you all again in twelve months time.