Tough post for Granard Garda

Longford-based Garda Chris Lee becomes Vice-President of GRA.

Granard based Garda Chris Lee was recently elected to the prestigious role of Vice President of the Garda Representative Association following the annual conference. At a time when Garda morale is at an all time low following the tragic death of fellow members, the recent surge in young offenders and the damaging public perception of the Garda Siochana after such events like the May Day Rally , we spoke to Chris Lee about life within the service and his future plans as the vice president of the GRA.

Somewhat of a modest man, Chris Lee readily admits that he did not expect to be elected as Vice President of the GRA but it is a job that he takes on with great pride and a determination to see change for the better within the force. Forty six year old Garda Lee has 24 years service in An Garda Siochana and over nine years with the GRA Executive. He is also chairman of the Garda Benevolent Trust Fund.

He spent his early service in Donegal and Dublin and is now based in Granard. A native of Mullingar, Co Westmeath Garda Lee is married with two children.

Garda Lee contested the election for Vice President with the Dublin based Garda Bernie Connell. He will of course remain a Garda member of Granard Station but daily duties will be regularly interspersed with executive GRA meetings.

“I’m still a uniformed member attached to Granard Garda station and that will continue to be the case. I will of course now be involved in executive meetings in Dublin and I would hope to be the best representative that I possibly can for members in my own division of Longford/Westmeath and on a national basis,” explained Chris.

Manpower issues
So what changes does the newly elected vice president of the GRA envisage for the force? One of the key concerns for Garda Lee as manifested in his own division of Longford/Westmeath is the issue of lack of available manpower. The pre-election promise from Fianna Fail to provide an additional 2,000 Gardaí is not a realistic figure according to Garda Chris Lee as he explained, “The figure of 2,000 extra Garda is not achievable, Templemore College is working to it’s full capacity at the moment and there would be enormous difficulties to provide such extra numbers.”

He recognises the need for extra numbers within the force however saying “The present practice sees more and more members retiring after thirty years service at the age of fifty plus so Gardaí are constantly being taken out of the loop. The Longford/Westmeath division is evidence of such a serious lack of manpower and in my view it does not meet the necessary requirements.”

As many members within the Longford/Westmeath division are engaged in UN duty, courts, sick leave etc on any given day, it can effect the manpower within the Garda units. In such circumstances it seems that Lanesboro Garda station regularly suffers as Garda Lee explained. “We have four units in Longford station and a unit consists of one sergeant and seven members so depending on other duties it can have a serious impact on the strength of the unit. Take Lanesboro station for example, manpower is taken from there on an ongoing basis to support the units in Longford and this is extremely unsatisfactory.”

The area of rural manpower is obviously one issue which Garda Lee will be vigorously pursing within the GRA and he is determined to witness change.”

Longford is regarded as a rural division with no major urban centre and we have difficulty with that concept as we still have a host of problems that need to be addressed and society expects more and more of us.”

Public Perception
Following the Dublin based May Day Rally when the Garda clashed with hundreds of protesters there has been a damaging effect on the public perception of the Garda. Garda Lee admits that morale among members has been seriously effected but he is keen to hold his council on such issues until a full investigation is completed. He is somewhat critical of the Minister for Justice, John O’Donoghue however, as in the aftermath of the rally the minister did not immediately accept the findings of the Garda Commissioner. “I was surprised that the Minister made such comments which did not necessarily accept the findings of the Garda Commissioner. It was a most professional investigation of the Garda Siochana and for the minister to question such findings was a slur on his integrity and his ability to investigate.”

The vice President of the GRA was highly critical of the media’s coverage of the rally incident claiming that a mardi gras type event was wrongly portrayed. “The media painted a picture of a mardi gras type thing and that was not the case. Somewhere between Temple Bar and Dame Street attitudes changed. We need to wait until a full investigation comes out. There were a lot of public order incidents prior to the rally and all that is only coming to light. The media in general paint a particular picture of the Garda which is usually unfair and unbalanced.”

Chris is keen to point out that regular MRBI polls indicate a public satisfaction with the Garda which is contrary to the image constantly portrayed by the media.

“MRBI polls show public satisfaction to be quite high and most police forces would give their right arms to have such levels of public satisfaction.”

Young Offenders
The number of young offenders has risen significantly over the past few years with a dramatic increase in the public order offences regularly committed. ‘Joy riding’ incidents have resulted in the recent tragic Gardaí and civilian deaths and the policing of young offenders continues to pose a spiralling problem for Garda members. Plans for a new detention centre for 14-15 year olds in St Patrick’s Institution will cost £9 million and while some opponents to the new centre claim it will merely serve as a ‘warehousing’ of children, Garda Chris Lee believes such centres are a necessity. “The new facility in Dublin has to be welcomed. If society wants to rehabilitate young offenders there needs to be an educational nature of course if anything is going to change. The idea of lock them up and throw away the key - well at times that’s necessary and these people have to be removed. I don’t see any real improvement in the immediate future, it is nearly impossible to rehabilitate some young offenders, they have a very poor start in life and very little parental control.”

Chris is somewhat critical of the role of Health Boards in such situations and he feels that in reality the Gardai are expected to be able to deal with all eventualities. “If we’re dealing with a young offender at 3 or 4am and we can’t contact the parents the problem is left to the Gardai and they may not always have the qualifications to deal with such issues all of the time. The Health Board tend to work 9-5pm and are not always perhaps aware but the Gardai are usually left to carry the can.”

The Vice President of the GRA admits that alcohol is a major contributory factor to the rise in the number of young offenders and he has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of public order offences. “There is an aggression in young people that wasn’t there before and that is evident in the number of public order offences and assaults. There just isn’t the same level of respect for Gardai as there was heretofore.”

Garda Inspectorate
The GRA has serious concerns about the proposed Garda Inspectorate, it declared at its recent annual conference. They are firmly of the view that had the Complaints Board which was set up in 1986 been given enough resources both financially and in personnel, there would have been no need for a new Inspectorate. Instead this Board was left to languish with little funding or resources, believe the GRA. As Chris highlighted the GRA are opposed to the investigation of criminal activity by this inspectorate - “I fully expect that the Inspectorate will come in but we would be concerned that it works in a fair and just manner. Criminal activity is a matter for the courts however.”

While Chris readily accepts that the public have the right to make complaints against the Gardai he is concerned that the complaints Board system was perhaps abused with a number of unfair complaints. “The system was being abused with a number of complaints of a vexatious nature and while such complaints were obvious all matters had to be fully investigated which meant that an innocent Garda would have to go through months of this process.” But surely independent oversight is a matter of reality and is to permanent feature of policing for the future?

“We accept that the Inspectorate is going to come in, that’s just a matter of fact. If it deals with complaints in a fair and just manner in an independent capacity then we will judge it on those merits.”

Abbeylara incident
The decision by the Minister for Justice to recommend the establishment of a public inquiry into the fatal shooting of John Carthy was announced in April two years since the Abbeylara’s man death. John Carthy was shot dead outside his home in Toneymore, Abbeylara by members of the Emergency Response Unit when he emerged from his home after a 25 hour siege on 20 April 2000. This Garda representatives and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties supported the Minister for Justice’s call for a public inquiry into the death of John Carthy. Chris maintained that the Gardai were vindicated by the High Court and Supreme Court rulings which stated that the Oireachtas sub-committee had ‘no inherent power’ to set up an inquiry which was likely to lead to findings of fact or expression of opinion adverse to the good name of people who are not members of the Oireachtas.

“Politicians set themselves up as court inquisitors and while I am reluctant to use the word it was somewhat of a kangaroo court. The public inquiry will hopefully take place before the end of the year and everyone associated with Abbeylara will be able to tell their side of the story. I am fully convinced that all the queries raised will be answered and then everyone associated with the case and the general public at large will have possibility to make the proper judgements. The Gardai were involved in a trial by media and they have had to live through this as have the Carthy family. Throughout all of the media speculation however, there come a point when the fundamental issue which is the death of John Carthy has been lost somewhere along the way,” said Chris.

So will the long awaited public inquiry into the death of John Carthy finally bring about some sense of closure for the Carthy family, the Gardai and the general public. Chris believes so. “ I am privy to certain things and I know that when the public inquiry comes about and all the facts are out in the open, a sense of closure will come.”

Changes within the Gardai
One of the major causes for concern to the newly elected Vice President of the GRA is the immediate necessity to introduce purpose built patrol cars to the Gardai Siochana. Indeed it was a matter which he spoke passionately about at the GRA conference. Referring to the recent traffic accident in Kinnegad when Garda members were involved in a horrific crash while pursing criminals in a stolen car, Garda Chris Lee believes change is long over due. “It’s obvious that Garda members came within an inch of their lives during that incident and there is evidence that if there had been side impact air bags, it could have possibly have prevented some of the injuries suffered by the members. The day of the ordinary family saloon is gone and we need purpose built patrol cars to protect safety of members. In the Kinnegad incident a decision was taken in order to avoid the people of Kinnegad being injured and in taking that decision they were aware of the possible consequences and they nearly lost their lives because of it. Sometimes the public forget that and may take the Gardai for granted.

Accommodation issues within the Longford/Westmeath division is another area of concern for Chris as he highlights the fact that a number of stations within the division are in urgent need of upgrading. “Stations in Castlepollard and Ballymore are in need of upgrading and this is just one of the many issues I will be addressing.”

In relation to payment issues, Garda Lee is hopeful that the Benchmarking review body for public sector pay which is due to report back at the end of June will be positive. “I hope that the results of the benchmarking body will recognise the contribution that Gardai have made to this society. Afterall the Gardai are just a group of ordinary men and women who at times do an extraordinary job.”

- courtesy of the Longford Leader
Friday 7th June 2002