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Too few gardaí on the streets? Wait until you hear about builders, medics, teachers, planners, bus drivers

Ireland is risking an abundance of private opulence and public squalor

Whether a shortage of gardaí on the streets during the recent riots was a contributor to the chaos that emerged is still contested territory. Senior ministers have said it was, while Garda sources dispute this. But everyone agrees that more gardaí are needed and that the force is below its required level.

And this is part of a wider story. Ireland is also short of builders, doctors, nurses, social care and childcare workers, planners, teachers, bus drivers, lecturers, civil servants and many others. The economic growth of recent years and the sharp increase in the population has left the economy short on capacity and on people delivering services, both public and private. Catching up is a key challenge.

The questions facing policing go well beyond numbers, of course. But this is undoubtedly part of the story. The strength of the force is 1,000 gardaí below the 15,000 target level – and arguably even more than that are needed. The revelation this week that gardaí are one of the best-paid groups in the State is just another symptom of this.

The reasons why are instructive. The average hourly earnings of a garda are just a bit above the public sector average – and bang in line with it, if overtime pay is excluded. They are also well below rates in highly-paid sectors such as ICT and pharma.


But gardaí are sitting on top of the pay pile because on average they work much longer – almost 46 hours a week, compared with an economy-wide average of about 33 hours – and thus get paid significant overtime as a matter of course. A persistence of overtime in recent years and its increase in 2023 points to this shortage of gardaí and also raises questions about the contentious issue of rosters and the wider organisation of the force.

Senior Ministers this week traced this shortage to as far back as the aftermath of the financial crash, when the Templemore training college was closed from 2010 to 2014 to save money. It seems the post-crash hangover in house-building is not the only legacy of that period. More recently, temporary closures of Templemore during Covid lockdowns have also had an impact. And the Garda have been caught in the same labour squeeze as the rest of the economy in recent years, losing staff and finding it hard to recruit.

The wider story is that employment across the public sector – despite increasing sharply – has simply not kept pace over recent years. Before the financial crash, the public sector accounted for about 17 per cent of total employment. Now it is closer to 14 per cent, below the developed-country average of about 16 per cent. On this basis, you could argue we need another 50,000 to 60,000 public servants. And this is despite the fact that employment in the public sector has risen by 36,000 since before the pandemic.

Employers group Ibec has argued that shortage of public servants, together with years of underinvestment after the financial crash, have left the economy with a severe capacity shortage. This shows up in shortages and queues for services and in higher prices for assets such as houses. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has come at the argument from the other direction, saying that the State needs to deliver more and cheaper services to the public and that delivery of what is calls the “social wage” in Ireland is well behind other, more-developed EU countries.

The Government has invested significantly here over the last few years, as shown by the sharp rise in numbers – and also higher spending in areas such as housing. And it has been able to do so because of the strong economy and public finances, while still salting away money for the future and moving the budget into surplus, a necessary tactic given the unpredictability of corporation tax. Here, key November tax figures out next week will tell us a lot more.

But the odds are that with growth already slowing and what is at least a temporary and significant hiatus in the upward trend in corporation tax talking hold, budget decisions are going to get shaper and the trade-offs more evident. Continuing to build the public service – while also paying for an ageing population and climate change – will require making choices. It will also need significant planning and a real focus on value for money. More spending has to mean better services.

Despite the slowdown, Ireland remains a well-off country with significant resources to deploy. The question comes down to political choice about how to raise and use public resources – and to the organisation of this. Does Ireland want to work to develop a northern European model of public services – and accept that this will mean the tax levels prevailing in that part of the world? Or does the State muddle on and risk the development of what the famous US economist JK Galbraith called a coincidence of “private opulence and public squalor”. Interestingly, he said this could emerge “where public services have failed to keep abreast of private consumption”.

Ireland’s public services are not in this state and still operate quite well in many respects – as shown by indicators such as education levels and life expectancy. But there is no doubt that the cracks are showing. Or that this is a bigger issue for the less well-off, mainly younger sector of the population, reliant on services such as childcare and education and unable to buy their way around problems through, for example, taking out health insurance to skip the queues. And, of course, they often struggle to get into the housing market.

Building vital areas of the public service – and funding key investments in areas such as housing – is vital for social solidarity and economic progress. It will mean not doing some other things. In other words, as economists such as John FitzGerald have pointed out, trying to direct resources to priority areas – building houses rather than offices, for example. It will also mean ending the illusion that at the same time as increasing spending, the tax burden can somehow also be cut. In fact, it will need to go up a bit. Perhaps next week’s corporation tax figures will start to put that particular trade-off firmly on the political table.