Home » Ireland is Great at ‘out With the Old’ but Falls Down in Ushering in the Promised New Land
Ireland News Transportation

Ireland is Great at ‘out With the Old’ but Falls Down in Ushering in the Promised New Land

Rural Garda stations haven’t gone away, you know. Well, some of them have — but the concept of rural stations as a political issue is alive and well. 

This week, in the Irish Examiner, Cormac O’Keeffe reported there are calls for more than 30 abandoned Garda stations to be reopened. These stations were closed as part of a rationalisation strategy in 2013 but are now lying idle. 

Nobody has articulated a rational case for reopening the stations but the Garda Representative Association (GRA) believes the closures “broke the link with communities, reduced visibility and diminished service to the many communities they served”.

Such sentiment is probably self-serving, but the fallout from the closures does illustrate once more how reform processes in this country tend to manage well the “out with the old” element but often fall down on ushering in the promised change. 

Garda stations are an obvious example but in recent years similar problems have arrived in areas such as rationalising emergency departments in the State’s hospitals.

A total of 139 Garda stations were closed as part of a Garda programme to modernise the organisation. These stations, for the most part, were first opened in the 19th century, when cycling was the main mode of transport and the population was scattered widely across the State. 

Certainly, management in An Garda Síochána used the opportunity of the recession in 2013 to effect change. There was much opposition to the plan from right across the political spectrum in response to public outrage in the affected locations.

The most memorable contribution in this respect came from People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett in a TV debate during the 2016 election. Asked did he favour the reopening of the stations, he replied he was if the people felt they were needed. As an example of evidence-based policymaking, this was as good as it gets.

The fear generated by the closures was irrational, but nonetheless real. Rural crime, to the extent that it existed, largely occurred at nighttime when these stations were closed. Some of the stations were open for only a few hours in the day, often five days a week. Usually, the members who occupied the stations during the day lived in one of the bigger towns so the spectre of the garda being part of the community had long since passed.

Blow to rural Ireland

It is entirely understandable that many rural communities saw the closures as symbolically representing another blow to rural Ireland. Even if the local station was long past performing a meaningful function, at least its presence represented continuity. That, however, was not enough reason to maintain these outposts at a time when An Garda Síochána was desperately attempting to modernise.

Following the 2016 general election a group of independents, led by Shane Ross, demanded some of the closures be reversed. A deal was agreed to select six stations for reopening. It was no surprise that among the six was one in leafy Stepaside in the heart of Ross’s constituency, which had apparently transmogrified into a hotbed of serious crime since its prized station had closed.

The decision dragged An Garda Síochána into politics on the cheap. In 2019, an Oireachtas committee effectively condemned the closures but notably did not recommend any further reopenings.

So much for the first phase of reform. The other bit, the one which promised to take away the physical infrastructure would be replaced with mobile patrols and outreach centres, was where the proposal fell down, draining confidence from many of the rural communities. Out with the old was all well and good but it was not replaced properly with the new as was promised.

GRA president Brendan O’Connor was correct to some extent this week that the closures “broke the link with communities, reduced visibility and diminished service to the many communities they served”.

The reason was not that the physical infrastructure of policing was changed to adapt to modern times, but that policing itself was not similarly adapted as promised to ensure rural areas would not feel left behind.

Emergency departments

This problem of failing to follow through on sensible rationalisation also presented problems in closing emergency departments (EDs) in hospitals across the country. These closures made perfect sense in terms of referring admissions to larger centres of excellence where the prospect of positive outcomes was greatly enhanced. 

However, in some instances, the closures themselves were seen as the solution without ensuring capacity was increased in the bigger hospitals.

This problem was particularly acute in the Mid-West region in recent years with the downgrading of ED departments in Ennis and Nenagh. Health Minister Stephen Donnolly admitted in a Senead debate last January that the second part of the reform had run into problems.

“When it comes to pressures in emergency departments, I believe that mistakes in implementation were made in some previous reconfigurations,” he said. 

“Capacity should have been provided where emergency departments were being consolidated. It was not always done. 

He said the Government was doing something about that now. Lessons apparently have been learned. Maybe. 

Last year, the plan to rationalise the emergency department in Our Lady’s Hospital Navan, with most referrals transferred to Drogheda, ran into major opposition and was ultimately abandoned. 

On one level, this was parish pump politics at work, preventing reform in pursuit of the greater good. But who could blame those opposed when all they had to do was look south to Limerick to see the promised extra capacity at the bigger hospital simply did not take place.

Progress demands that governing must make decisions which in the short term are going to require some political pain, and often fear in smaller communities. Dealing with these issues requires skill and some political courage. 

But where the reform appears to really fall down is ensuring the promised services do improve lives in those small communities from which long-standing, if out-of-date services are displaced. 

There is a big difference between just swiping away services from rural outposts, whether it is in health or policing, and actually following through and demonstrating that the new way of doing things improves life for everybody.

Source : Irish Examiner