Noting his concerns pertaining to community policing, Cathaoirleach of Westmeath Council, Cllr Aengus O'Rourke, has penned a letter to Garda Chief Superintendent, John Dollard, requesting an urgent meeting to discuss issues which are continuing to have a detrimental impact within Athlone and its immediate environs.
Expressing his condolences to the family of Paul Connolly who tragically lost his life during a recent visit to Athlone, Cllr O'Rourke, noted that he had previously expressed his reservations regarding the lack of resources at Athlone Garda Station with Commissioner Drew Harris.
"In October last year, at a public meeting with Commissioner Drew Harris I explained to him that Athlone is desperately under resourced from a Garda perspective. I informed him that we have no Community Policing Unit, no Drugs Unit, and that our state-of-the-art barracks is only manned by four Gardai at certain times.
"Earlier this year I informed the now retired Chief Superintendent for Westmeath Fergus Healy of the very same facts. I also asked him why Mullingar has 50 more Gardai than Athlone, and why was Athlone constantly the ‘poor relation’ in the county when it came to allocating members. I further made him aware that rank and file members of An Garda Siochana from Athlone were coming to my clinics telling me how bad it is for sheer numbers of Gardai in our Athlone barracks.
"I queried if it concerned him that members from the division which he then led were left with no option but to turn to politicians in order to get something done about the severe shortages of Gardai in Athlone.
"At both meetings, Drew Harris and Fergus Healy shrugged off these criticisms and claimed that the picture I painted was overstating the situation and that all was under control, but then again,
“Neither individual knows Athlone, works in Athlone, is from Athlone or has spent any time in Athlone. All they know about Athlone is presented by numbers and data on a report handed to them. Spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations telling them all the right numbers and data - Athlone is doing great,” Cllr O’Rourke asserted.
The Cathaoirleach stated that the situation is now worse than what he then presented at the time of those meetings.
“We still have no Community Policing Unit, no dedicated Drugs unit and we have no new Gardai. At times there are only four Gardai manning the barracks in a populated area of 25,000. More often than not there are more Garda cars on the street outside the barracks than Gardai inside.
“This is the reason why we never see Gardai ‘on the beat’. Visit any city in the world and you see the local police walking in pairs. It is a professional, discreet and reassuring display of law and order in any urban environment. I have no doubt it is also a strong deterrent in very many ways.
“Athlone has more than its fair share of all-day outdoor drinkers, people intoxicated hanging around in public places, being a nuisance and causing litter. This is illegal behaviour, but is never addressed.
“We also see people lying on our public footpaths with blankets over them begging for money. These people are not from Athlone, they are an organised begging crew that are brought into Athlone in the morning and leave in the evening - this activity is ongoing for years and needs to be addressed immediately.
“We have a huge drugs problem in Athlone. The same people are dabbling in drugs, selling drugs and pushing drugs in Athlone for the past decade or more. With more Gardai and a dedicated drugs unit operating in Athlone this can and should be tackled in a concerted way.
“Outside our night clubs, late at night, with hundreds of individuals descending upon the streets at closing time, a very volatile and fragile hour or two ensues. We need Gardai to be front and centre in this situation, with vehicles parked in prominent locations, and in complete control of our streets. Individuals would very quickly disperse, quietly and safely,” Cllr O’Rourke commented.
The concerned Cathaoirleach stressed the urgent need for a well resourced Garda cohort to ensure Athlone maintains it status as a popular tourism destination.
“Athlone is great town, a university town, a popular tourism destination and the business capital of the Midlands. We need and deserve a robust, well resourced cohort of Gardai in this town, but what we have at present is not adequate.
“I know most of the Gardai in Athlone personally, my office is located beside the barracks so we meet one another every day. We are very lucky to have the men and women we currently have serving in Athlone. They are dedicated, professional and extremely conscientious in their roles as Gardai. The problem is that there is not enough of them. We need more Gardai in Athlone, a lot more.
“So, it is in this regard that I have written to the new Chief Superintendent, John Dollard, and requested a meeting to discuss such matters. I want him to know and understand Athlone and the problems with which we are regularly dealing. I will also make him aware of our future ambitions for Athlone with plans for growth and expansion very much to the fore. I intend for this meeting to be the first of many until progress is made on all of the issues which I have been highlighting now for some time,” Cllr O’Rourke concluded.