by Louise Doyle
POLICING is facing the biggest challenge of its time with the closure of rural garda stations and calls to arm uniformed officers on the front-line, a retired Donegal-based garda has said.
Martin Rochford was speaking out following his retirement from the force after a career spanning three decades.
He was initially stationed in Castlefinn before being posted to Creeslough in 1987, where he lived in official garda accommodation. He stayed there until 2006 when he was appointed Sergeant-in-Charge of Falcarragh, Dunfanaghy and Creeslough, where he remained until he retired last month.
The Sligo native, who stepped down after 30 years’ service, readily admits that while An Garda Siochana gave him “some of the best days of his life”, there are, he says, cracks forming across the whole force because of increasing pressures, reducing garda numbers and depleting resources.
Although quietly spoken, Mr Rochford’s gentle demeanour is not to be confused with an uncertainty or weakness as he has, somewhat uniquely, drawn experience from both sides of the ‘judicial coin’ having worked as a prison officer in the notorious in Spike Island prison in Cork before joining the ranks of An Garda Siochana.
Speaking to the Donegal News, the father-of-two revealed how “poverty” led him to join the prison service, and how, in retrospect, he believes the prison system does not work.
“I got married and was working in a factory in Sligo but it closed down for renovations and never really reopened. It was a huge blow to the area as there were around 300 people employed there.
“I did my correspondence exams and I got into the prison service. The money wasn’t great back then and unfortunately it is almost back to a level par again. It was hard times in the prison service. Spike Island was Ireland’s answer to Alcatraz and was home to some high risk criminals. At that time in Ireland there was a joyriding epidemic and prisons were clogged up and so it was decided that some would be sent to Spike Island. They were high risk. There were a couple of attempted escapes. Every night there was an incident. It was high pressure. However, what I learned was that you can’t bluff people. The force of your personality was all you had. You had to be straight and fair with them but you couldn’t falter either. You had to be honest. People respond to that.
“There are people in prison for making bad decisions but they may not necessarily be bad people. Good people do bad things and bad people are very capable of doing very good things. My focus was to be non-judgmental.
“The prison system does not work, not for small time crime. It’s an absolute waste of time. We take someone before the court and give them a conviction which is of no use to them then put into a system where they are at a bigger disadvantage.”
Following the birth of his second child, Mr Rochford embarked on a career as a garda officer at the age of 28. An advocate of building a rapport with the community, he insisted that residents call him by his first name. Mr Rochford believes the selling off of rural garda stations and associated accommodation was the beginning of the end of the endorsement of rural and community policing.
“Guards out there now can’t afford to get a mortgage and those houses were costing the state absolutely nothing are gone. That link is gone and the only way to have that link is to be on the ground and living within the community you police.
“Community policing is about more than having someone walk up and down the main street of Letterkenny. To me, community policing is about living in and doing things for the community.
“It’s not surprising that very few people are applying to be a gard nor that there are no new gards coming to Donegal. It is felt thar support is not there for guards on a micro or bigger level.
“The gardai is a great organisation for ‘you’ll be grand’. And it was grand for me but maybe not for the person standing next to me. It’s not a job for everyone, but unfortunately people get into it and they become stuck.”
Continuing, Mr Rochford also reflected on the challenges posed by social media on society and the gardai.
“A big thing within social media is bullying, and, unfortunately, bullying is not a crime. If you are a parent and you allow your 13-year-old child to have a smartphone and they spend 10 hours in their bedroom, you have already lost the fight. There is so much naivety around the dangers of social media and it is a major challenge for the gardai.
“In terms of changes within the gardai as a whole, I think that came after the murder of journalist, Veronica Guerin. The political will was there and the tools were give to guards, who had the support of the media. Prior to this we weren’t really allowed any sort of political influence.
“The dynamic has shifted again and talks are of a root and branch review of the organisation – but immediately that term conjures up a feeling of negativity. A review of rural policing was the first thing on the agenda and the closure of rural stations followed.
“And now one of other things being talked about is arming uniformed officers. That’s not my idea of front-line policing and if we do that, what’s next?”
Reflecting on his decision to retire, Mr Rochford said he knew it was “time” to step back.
“I loved my job as much the day I left as the day I started. However, I started asking myself if I wanted to still be doing it in a year’s time – standing at the roadside of a fatal accident, delivering bad news and attending suicides, which all take a little something from you. There is a detachment process and as time goes on you have to leave it parked at work because if you didn’t you wouldn’t be able to get on with your own life.
“I left at a stage where I was still enjoying the job. You get into a way of thinking that there is no other way of living or other job to do. You can become myopic and I didn’t want that to happen.
“What I have learned is that if you can make someone’s life easier; if you can help them through trauma then you have done your job.
“It has been very rewarding for me. I got a lot more out of it than I imagined.”
Having just returned from far flung travels in Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia, Mr Rochford is embracing this new chapter of his life.