A recent spate of crime in the Laois Offaly Garda Division has increased anxiety in communities around the number of gardaí available to investigate, an Offaly Government TD has told her Laois Fine Gael colleague and Minister for Jusitice Charlie Flanagan.
Dep Marcella Corcoran Kennedy told Minister Flanagan that the incidents and issues were 'not news to him' when she raised the issue on Thursday, October 18.
"In recent weeks a spate of crime has been committed in counties Offaly and Laois, understandably increasing the anxiety of local communities around the number of gardaí available to gather intelligence and investigate each crime adequately. Examples of the type of crime favoured by the criminals are vans being stolen or damaged with tools stolen in Tullamore, Birr, Cloghan and Kinnity.
"The Bord na Móna workshop in Boora was burgled and it appears that tools were the target. Additionally, cash and-or jewellery was stolen in burglaries in Ferbane, Ballinagar, Clara, Rath and Birr to name but a few. I know the Minister is very familiar with County Laois where, for example, in Rosenallis a house was ransacked, a Bobcat machine and power tools were stolen in Wolfhill and Mountrath Golf Club did not escape with a car broken into and a laptop and jewellery stolen," said the TD.
In his reply Minister Flanagan said crime was down.
"It is to be noted that in respect of burglaries the decrease in the Laois Offaly division, referred to by the Deputy, for this period is 7% higher than the national average. The decrease in burglary is of the order of 37%," he said.
Dep Flanagan complimented the gardaí in the Laois Offaly division under the active leadership of Chief Superintendent John Scanlon on their success in this regard.
He said he he has do direct role in policing numbers but said the latest official figures show that there are 325 gardaí attached to the Laois Offaly Division. There are also 17 reservists and 24 civilians. A total of 66 recruits have been assigned to the Laois Offaly division since 2014.
He said gardaí had received new vehicles while the divisional HQ in Portlaoise was also in line for upgrade. He said the counties police force would also benefit from more investment.
The following is the text of the Topical Issue discussed in the Dáil on Wednesday, October 18.
Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy:
"I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue and I thank the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, for his presence. The issues I raise will not be news to him as I know he prioritises this matter as much as I do myself, not only as Minister for Justice and Equality but as a local Deputy also.
"In recent weeks a spate of crime has been committed in counties Offaly and Laois, understandably increasing the anxiety of local communities around the number of gardaí available to gather intelligence and investigate each crime adequately. Examples of the type of crime favoured by the criminals are vans being stolen or damaged with tools stolen in Tullamore, Birr, Cloghan and Kinnity. The Bord na Móna workshop in Boora was burgled and it appears that tools were the target. Additionally, cash and-or jewellery was stolen in burglaries in Ferbane, Ballinagar, Clara, Rath and Birr to name but a few. I know the Minister is very familiar with County Laois where, for example, in Rosenallis a house was ransacked, a Bobcat machine and power tools were stolen in Wolfhill and Mountrath Golf Club did not escape with a car broken into and a laptop and jewellery stolen.
"Policing is something that we all rely on to keep society functioning properly. As someone who has been a victim of robbery myself, I acknowledge the brilliant members of An Garda Síochána who provide calm reassurance to victims and make every effort to solve the crime. To that end I acknowledge the successes achieved recently in that there was a cannabis find in Cloghan, a man has been arrested after a Tullamore burglary and another young man was charged with recent break-ins to petrol stations in Laois.
"In order for us to prevent and combat that type of activity co-operation between communities, local authorities and members of An Garda Síochána is essential. I acknowledge the community text alert groups that are being established, many as a result of local burglaries, which I outlined. However, I advise local communities not wait to have such an experience but to establish a group as a preventative measure as there are financial supports available to those invaluable local groups as an important measure in support of crime prevention in rural communities. Many communities in my home county of Offaly are very active in using the system for crime prevention and I commend the excellent work of the people involved in helping to safeguard local communities. I know as well as anyone the positive impact text alert groups are having on rural communities and I am aware of the excellent work being done in Offaly by local groups in tandem with the hard work of the local Garda Síochána.
"The new CCTV fund announced by the Department of Justice and Equality is certainly an additional method for specific and suitable locations. However, I am getting feedback that the application process is overly bureaucratic. It is vital to ensure that community groups are given necessary supports to assist with the application process if they feel the infrastructure would benefit their area. I have urged local communities to liaise with their local council and An Garda Síochána for assistance to ensure the schemes allow new technologies to fuse with the traditional value of active community engagement to keep Laois and Offaly safe. In order to have continued success with Operation Thor, I welcome the sight of new vehicles in our area also as An Garda Síochána needs the best of equipment in its endeavours to fight crime.
"I acknowledge the work of the midlands Muintir na Tíre development office which works closely with An Garda Síochána in the provision of community care, community safety and crime prevention. I also acknowledge the work of the IFA whose members are often targets for criminals. It has developed an annual campaign to increase security awareness among farmers stressing the importance of being safety conscious and marking, photographing and securing property to reduce the chance of a theft occurring. We can all follow its advice whether we are farmers or not.
"It is important to take this opportunity to acknowledge the excellent and brave work of the emergency services who have worked and are continuing to work on our behalf in dangerous conditions during the unprecedented Storm Ophelia. I know that members of the services responded to calls and put their own safety at risk to assist members of the public in the Laois-Offaly division and across the country.
"It is crucial that members of An Garda Síochána are available on the ground to succeed in combatting and solving crime but we need enough of them, deployed in all Garda stations in rural Ireland to continue to do so.
Reply from Deputy Charles Flanagan:
"I thank Deputy Corcoran Kennedy for raising this important matter. I assure the Deputy that I am very much aware of the impact of crime on rural communities, including the serious damage done by organised criminal gangs who target rural areas to engage in burglary and other forms of property crime. As the Deputy is aware, Operation Thor entails a broad range of activities to tackle organised crime gangs and other prolific offenders as well as working with communities in order to prevent crime.
"Since its inception in November 2015, there has been concentrated activity under Operation Thor, which is reflected in the implementation of more than 83,260 targeted checkpoints throughout the State and 28,630 searches. There have also been in the region of 5,500 arrests and 6,156 charges covering a range of offences which, in addition to burglary, have included handling stolen property, possession of firearms and drugs and related offences. It is encouraging to note that burglary figures in particular have shown a significant downward trend. The CSO official recorded crime statistics for the fourth quarter of 2016 show a 30% decrease in burglary for the 12 months of 2016 when compared to the same period in 2015, which parallels the implementation of Operation Thor.
Furthermore, it is to be noted that in respect of burglaries the decrease in the Laois Offaly division, referred to by the Deputy, for this period is 7% higher than the national average. The decrease in burglary is of the order of 37%. I compliment the gardaí in the Laois Offaly division under the active leadership of Chief Superintendent John Scanlon on their success in this regard. The Government remains committed to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country in order to maintain and strengthen community engagement, provide reassurance to citizens and deter criminal activity. To make this a reality for all, the Government has in place a plan to achieve an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021, comprising 15,000 garda members, 2,000 members of the Garda Reserve and 4,000 civilians.
"As the House will appreciate, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the distribution of resources, including personnel, among the various divisions. I, as Minister, do not have a direct role in the matter. I am, however, informed by the Acting Commissioner that the Garda strength of the Laois Offaly division as of 31 August 2017, the latest date for which figures are readily available, was 325. There are also 17 reservists and 24 civilians attached to the Laois Offaly division. When appropriate, the work of local gardaí is supported by a number of Garda national units such as the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau and the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau.
"I am further informed by the Acting Commissioner that since the reopening of the Garda College in September 2014, almost 1,400 recruits have attested as members of An Garda Síochána and have been assigned to mainstream duties nationwide. A total of 66 of these have been assigned to the Laois Offaly division. In addition, another 200 trainee gardaí are scheduled to attest later this year. Taking account of projected retirements, this will see Garda numbers increase to approximately 13,500 by year end, an increase of 500 since the end of 2016.
"I am pleased to add that budget 2018 will support the continuation of this high level of investment in the Garda workforce to ensure the vision of an overall workforce of 21,000 by 2021 remains firmly on track. In 2018, a further 800 new Garda recruits will enter the Garda College and an additional 500 civilians will also be recruited to fill critical skills gaps throughout the organisation and to facilitate the redeployment of gardaí from administrative and technical duties to front-line operational duties. There are plans to strengthen the Garda Reserve with new reservists expected to commence training early in 2018.
"This focus on investment in personnel is critical. I wish to assure the Deputy that we will continue to rebuild the Garda organisation, provide the Commissioner with an appropriate level of resources in order to deploy increasing numbers of gardaí to every Garda division, including the Laois Offaly division referred to by the Deputy, in the coming period.
Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy:
"I thank the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, for his response. I fully concur with his remarks about Chief Superintendent Scanlan. I welcome the excellent news that the figures for burglaries are down in the division. However, one burglary to those affected is one too many. I know that there will always be a drive to keep these figures down.
"I also acknowledge that the Garda Commissioner is in fact responsible and not the Minister directly. However, anecdotally I am advised that there are specific numbers of gardaí allocated to certain divisions. I have in mind of the west Offaly area in particular. I am keen to ensure that those who are allocated and deployed to cover the area are in fact physically present in the area. I would greatly appreciate any effort that the Minister can make on behalf of myself and the communities who have been affected to ensure that each station is adequately covered by the number of staff allocated. I am keen to ensure that the number allocated to the stations in Ferbane, Cloghan and Banagher are actually deployed there.
"I know the Minister will want to ensure that the resources allocated are being allocated and used in a good way that will have a positive outcome. The moratorium on recruitment, which was imposed in 2010 by the then Fianna Fáil Government, has lifted and newly-trained gardaí are stationed in rural towns and villages. I am sure this will instil a measure of confidence in communities because gardaí will be visible on the ground and they will consider themselves in a better position to respond to any of the criminal activities that I outlined earlier.
Deputy Charles Flanagan: I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I mentioned earlier the overall plan on the part of the Government to increase the garda workforce to 21,000. This is complemented by a significant investment in resources across the board for An Garda Síochána. I have secured a total budget of €1.65 billion for An Garda Síochána for next year.
"It should be noted that the Garda allocation continues to substantially benefit from significant additional funding that was provided in 2016 and maintained in 2017. Funding will increase again for 2018 in order to ensure: that we are funding a sustained response to tackle gangland crime; that we fund the continuation of Operation Thor; and that measures to prevent international terrorism can be actively continued. In addition, I wish to highlight the importance for the Government of projects involving communities and An Garda Síochána working together. I was pleased to announce in the context of budget 2018 that it is possible to allocate an additional €100,000 for local crime prevention initiatives, including the effective text alert scheme, whereby crime prevention messages, general and specific to an area, are sent out by An Garda Síochána to community groups and are disseminated to members of communities.
"Some €330 million, including in excess of €200 million under the capital plan, is being invested in Garda information and communication technology infrastructure during the period from 2016-21. This major investment will allow An Garda Síochána to deploy the latest cutting-edge technologies in the fight against crime. It will facilitate progress on important reforms arising from the Garda Inspectorate report on criminal investigation.
"The capital plan 2016-21 provides for an investment of €46 million in the Garda fleet to ensure the Garda Síochána has a modern effective and fit-for-purpose fleet. The Deputy will be aware of new additions to the Garda fleet in County Offaly and throughout the Laois Offaly division. This is in addition to the investment of almost €30 million in the period 2013-15. The capital plan makes reference to substantial refurbishment to the Laois Offaly division headquarters at Portlaoise.
"In the period to the end of 2013-17, almost €44 million will have been invested in the fleet with some 2,000 vehicles coming on-stream over that period.
"I wish to assure the Deputy and the House that investment will facilitate the provision of a more effective policing service throughout the country. Of course it is reasonable for me to assume that the Laois Offaly division will, like all other Garda divisions, benefit from these new resources becoming available."