From HSE to guards, frontline workers need to be supported

The people working on the ground in hospitals and garda stations need support from those at the top, says TREVOR LAFFAN
From HSE to guards, frontline workers need to be supported

THIN BLUE LINE: Former guard Trevor Laffan says lack of resources has long been an issue for the gardaí

I WAS listening to a doctor on Morning Ireland recently and he was suggesting that hospitals would struggle with bed space for patients if the second surge in Covid-19 continued on its current path.

When it was put to him that the HSE had insisted they would have sufficient bed capacity to cope, he gave a sigh.

He went on to explain that, while the HSE was technically correct, they would only cope if they turned post-operative recovery rooms and other spaces designed for different purposes, into general ward space. I got the impression the HSE were playing with words.

Politicians do this all the time. They answer questions in such a way as to convince us they are on top of their game. They use a form of words to disguise the real issue and provide an answer that sounds convincing, and then move on to the next topic. That happens everywhere because I experienced it in An Garda Siochana too.

The shortage of manpower in that organisation has been an issue for decades. Back in the eighties, the then Minister for Justice Gerry Collins promised more gardaí for Cork after calls for extra resources. It was a never-ending call and it still continues today.

Sean O’Riordan reported in the Irish Examiner some time ago that the Garda Representative Association (GRA) complained that single-officer patrols, which regularly occur in stations such as Douglas, Ballincollig and Blarney, are “a health and safety issue”.

On one night, according to the GRA, just a single patrol car containing two gardaí was operating in the city centre at a time when thousands of people were spilling out of nightclubs.

More recently, Independent councillor Kenneth O’Flynn said he was deeply disturbed by media reports about an increase in violence in the city centre and Fine Gael senator Jerry Buttimer said there was a “perception that Cork is becoming a lawless city”.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s lawless, but I would imagine the gardaí would welcome extra resources. Show me a police force that wouldn’t.

But it’s more difficult to make a case for extra gardaí or more hospital beds if those running the show won’t admit there is an issue in the first place.

For example, there was an incident in Cork many years ago in the early hours of the morning, as revellers were heading home after a night out in the city centre.

A person was injured after a nasty assault and it attracted some media attention. It was suggested publicly that only a handful of gardaí were on duty that night and the city generally lacked an adequate police presence at the weekends when the pubs and clubs were closing.

A garda spokesman, long since retired, was interviewed the next day and rejected those claims. He insisted there were sufficient resources on duty the previous night and mentioned a specific number.

It sounded so convincing that it ended the conversation about resources and his account was accepted. Nothing to see here. The problem, though, was that while technically correct, he could be accused of playing with the figures.

The Cork City Garda Division covers a large area. It stretches from Ballincollig to Gurranabraher and from Carrigaline to Mayfield and includes every station in between. That amounts to a considerable number of gardaí and many of those would have been on duty that night, so he was technically correct. The reality was somewhat different.

The actual number of gardaí on outdoor duty in the city centre on that particular night was about six. That wouldn’t have been unusual and there were times when that number would have been even less. I know, because for a few of those years, I was responsible for deploying them.

Part of my responsibility in those days was to prepare the duty detail for the working gardaí on my shift. It was never easy trying to cover all the positions because of the shortage of manpower. It was ‘the miracle of the loaves and fishes’ kind of stuff.

People were required to fill many positions; patrol cars, personnel carrier, motorbike, the custody suite in the Bridewell, the communication centre in Anglesea Street, the courts, prisoner escorts and more. And that was before anything out of the ordinary happened, like a murder or some other serious incident, which would further drain resources.

Gardaí also needed time to deal with their paperwork and there was always lots of that.

When you considered the people on annual leave, sick leave, and on training courses, etc, it wasn’t unusual to be unable to provide a garda to walk the beat in the city centre. In fact, it was a regular occurrence in my day.

I remember one occasion, after I had briefed the garda members for duty, and they went off about their business, I was challenged as to why there was nobody on the beat. The senior officer wanted gardaí to be visible in the city centre.

I explained that, in the absence of a magic wand, there wasn’t much I could do about it. That officer would have been better employed making a case to the powers-that-be for extra resources.

All our frontline workers have been playing a stormer in recent times. Understaffed and underequipped, they battled on and continue to do so.

The least they deserve is a bit of straight talking from the top.

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