Check Against Delivery
A Ceann Comhairle, Deputies
I welcome the opportunity to address you again on issues arising in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
2 weeks ago, only a few short days after I last spoke about Covid-19 in this House, I attended a ceremony at Dublin Castle to mark the annual Garda Memorial Day, commemorating Gardaí who have lost their lives in the service of the State. I think it would be fitting, at the outset of our debate today, to put on record some of my remarks from that day.
Because as I said then, I take tremendous pride in the everyday work of the more than 14,700 women and men who are now serving as Gardaí in communities all across the State, more than at any time in the history of the organisation.
In my 3 years as Minister for Justice and Equality, I have had the privilege of working in close contact with the membership of An Garda Síochána as well as others in frontline roles in the emergency services. I admire hugely both the bravery of Gardaí and their commitment to public service.
I also admire their connection with the Irish people. I’m sure you have been looking at the events unfolding in America with as much horror as I have. The death of George Floyd was a tragedy, its aftermath has been horrific and very difficult for decent law enforcement officers across the United States. But, as we sympathise with his family and friends and watch the subsequent unrest, I believe we should all take note of how unreal it seems to us, how far the situation appears from our own reality – in large part I would contend, because of the close relationship the Irish people have with their local Gardaí.
At times of crisis, we are protected by the largely unarmed women and men of An Garda Síochána. They work to shield us all from harm. They connect our communities. And, oftentimes, they are also the ones to break difficult news and support us in moments of intense grief.
Indeed I think it is that commitment – to family, to community and to country – that defines An Garda Síochána at its best. Which brings us to the heart of the topic that we are discussing today- community policing.
Community engagement has been a feature of An Garda Síochána since its inception as an unarmed service, almost 100 years ago. And yet I imagine that there are many different perspectives on what exactly community policing is and what it means in operational terms.
As Deputies are aware, in September 2018 the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland published its report, outlining a vision and roadmap for strengthening An Garda Síochána and the broader national framework for policing, security and community safety.
The report followed extensive consultations with communities and a wide range of stakeholders over fifteen months. Government endorsed the Commission’s report and a 4-year implementation plan “A Policing Service for the Future” is now progressing.
The Commission’s report and the implementation plan present the vision of a modern and effective policing service, with human rights as its foundation and community safety at its heart.
The Commission envisaged a new model of policing where ‘community policing’ is the backbone of all policing activities – in other words, all Gardaí working at a local level, should see their overarching collective function as working together to solve problems impacting community safety in the locality.
But as the Commission’s Report also said, policing is not just about detecting and investigating crime, crucial though that function is. It is also about preventing harm to those who are vulnerable and this important responsibility is not the responsibility of An Garda Síochána alone.
That is why, in addition to setting out a new governance and oversight framework for An Garda Síochána, the Policing and Community Safety Bill, which is currently being drafted by my Department, will redefine policing to include prevention of harm in particular to those who are vulnerable; and place an obligation on relevant state agencies to cooperate with Gardaí in relation to community safety.
Work is well advanced on the preparation of the General Scheme of the Bill. Once it is finalised it will be brought to Government for approval and publication.
But even ahead of the development of these new structures and approaches, I think Deputies will agree that a striking feature of the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland has been the extent to which Gardaí have stepped up community outreach and engagement.
In addition to the critical role that Gardaí are playing in supporting public health restrictions and in regular policing operations, Covid-19 has reinforced the manner in which proactive community engagement can improve the condition of peoples’ lives.
In all our communities, rural and urban, Garda members are reaching out to those who are most vulnerable, who are alone, or who are afraid. And Gardaí are encouraging anyone who needs help to call their local Garda station.
In recent weeks and in the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves, I have heard of Garda members:
· Calling to check on people who are cocooning, dropping off shopping and prescriptions all around the country;
· Serving as a lifeline to delivering other necessary equipment or materials, where needed, for example PPE for use by home carers in Letterkenny; and care packages to elderly members of the public cocooning in Blanchardstown;
· Stopping by, at a safe distance, to wish a happy birthday to 10-year old Rian in Cork and 90-year old Bridie in Mayo;
· Assisting in clean-ups in public green spaces; and
· Saving wildlife in danger: from ducklings here in Dublin, to lambs, foals and, in one remarkable event in April, rescuing a beached dolphin in Donegal.
In this way, the longstanding community ethos of An Garda Síochána has been brought even more to the fore –and I think it is true to say that in many cases, the public have never felt as close to their local Garda.
It is notable that a number of recent public surveys by external bodies have found strong support and satisfaction in relation to how An Garda Síochána has operated during the Covid-19 crisis. For example
Eurofound, has conducted a survey on trust in EU State agencies during the crisis. Trust in policing in Ireland was ranked well above the EU mean; and 6th most positive across the EU.
The Reputation Agency found that An Garda Síochána was ranked 2nd , only behind the HSE, in organisations leading and making a positive contribution in response to the Covid crisis.
And I understand that a survey by AA Ireland found that over 85% of people are satisfied with the response by An Garda Síochána to Covid-19.
These very high levels of public support and satisfaction with Gardaí can only be helpful as we move gradually forward towards a full reopening of society.
And as Deputies will be aware, in addition to weekly reports by the Commissioner, the Policing Authority is, at my request, assessing and reporting regularly on Garda action in the context of Covid-19.
I requested these reports in the interests of transparency, public confidence and to ensure the new and temporary Garda powers were implemented in a proportionate and human rights compliant manner.
The Authority’s most recent report specifically addresses community engagement and documents the overwhelmingly positive reaction at community level to the breadth and depth of Garda engagement. It identified positive outcomes such as increased proactivity, focus and engagement with support organisations and suggested that there was much to be learned from this experience as we consider community policing in the future.
I understand that these and related matters will be explored further in the next report of the Authority, later this week. I appreciate the Policing Authority’s detailed engagement with a range of stakeholders in this task and I thank them for this very helpful analysis.
Ceann Comhairle, combatting domestic abuse and sexual violence remains a priority during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As Deputies may be aware, at an early stage in this crisis, An Garda Síochána established a proactive initiative in this area - ‘Operation Faoiseamh’. The first phase of the operation involved Gardaí making proactive contact with victims who have reported domestic abuse in the past and actively following up.
The second phase of this operation has begun and I understand from the Commissioner that this phase is targeting perpetrators - and in particular, cases of persistent breaches of protection, safety and barring orders under the Domestic Violence Act.
This operation builds on other victim-centred approaches that An Garda Síochána are implementing, including the rollout of Divisional Protective Services Units, DPSUs. I understand that 16 of these have now established across 15 Divisions and that further roll-out nationwide is continuing.
These proactive measures are very welcome and sadly all too necessary – as Gardaí indicate that there has been a 25% increase in reporting of domestic abuse incidents at this time.
But I want the message to clearly go out to the women and men who suffer these dreadful crimes that supports and services are still available despite the pandemic; and that the civil and criminal justice system will continue to prioritise your support and safety.
I hope that my remarks today have given a brief update on community policing in the context of Covid-19, but also a flavour of the impact that new approaches and emphasises can potentially have.
I see a real sense of purpose in Garda members, as they serve and protect us in these unprecedented times. As Minister, I thank them and other frontline workers for their service.
I am conscious too of the sacrifices often made by the families of Gardaí. It cannot be easy, to know that a loved one’s working day can expose them to danger.
The reality is that the actions of Gardaí during these difficult days are creating a new and positive entry in the proud history of the service.
When we have emerged from this pandemic – and when we have had the chance to fully grieve for those who have been lost – I hope that we will also have the opportunity to reflect on what lessons and positive innovations, including in policing, that we can draw from this period and take with us, into the post-Covid world.