One of Donegal's most well-known sergeants tells us how he traded in his desk job and got back into uniform during lockdown 2020

Crime Prevention Officer for Donegal, Srg Paul Wallace tells us what it was like on the frontline in Donegal

Crime Prevention Officer for Donegal, Sergeant Paul Wallace

My name is Sergeant Paul Wallace and I am the Divisional Crime Prevention Officer for An Garda Síochána in Donegal, working out of Letterkenny Garda Station. My job involves the imparting of security advice to individual businesses operating in the county and also the financial sector i.e. the banks, credit unions, post offices etc. - basically anything security related and which may involve a risk assessment, well it can then end up on my desk.

Strange times

This all changed with Covid 19. Initially I did not know what the term ‘lockdown’ meant and how it would impact on our daily lives, routines, travel and so forth. Suddenly there were no pubs, restaurants, barbers and life took on a different meaning. We all slowed down.
My work involves a lot of personal one-to-one meetings so that was not going to happen during lockdown. Remote working from home became the new norm and all organisations had to implement plans, including AGS.
I was working from home after all the connectivity issues were sorted and the broadband kept up. Suddenly things you could only do from the office could be done from a bedroom, kitchen table, and patio whenever it didn’t rain. It was all quite strange.

Necessary for the national effort

Our organisation took in a new roster system at lightning speed. Suddenly 12-hour shifts - 7am to 7pm x 2 days, and 2 x nights working the opposite 7pm to 7am, were the new norm. At a stroke of Commissioner Harris’s pen all the different shift rotations were out the window with just two start times, 7am and 7pm, four days on and four days off. I had found my work rate had slowed considerably as I could not go out through the community. No one wanted to see you…nothing unusual for a Guard I hear you say! So, I took a decision and contacted my Superintendent and said I would go back into uniform (if I could find one after 20 years) and work on the Covid patrols. He was delighted and said all the help was both welcome and necessary for the national effort – which was to flatten the curve.

Young gardaí eager to get started

Young Gardaí from the county who had just gone to the Garda College in Templemore were literally given a briefing and a uniform and returned to Donegal to get involved in the policing effort. The station party was divided in two with working units split between the Garda Station and a facility at the COLAB building at LYIT. The Roads Policing Unit came to keep us company. Nervously, I went in for my first morning at 7am, back in my newly found uniform to be met by four very enthusiastic young gardaí - Sandra whom I knew, Niamh whom I did not know and was straight back from Templemore and back living in Muff, and Kerry who I did not know but trained with my son John in the Garda College. We also had Shane, the Westport representative.

Crime all but disappeared
Our duties were all outdoor. The Covid patrols were in effect patrolling the town and environs and keeping an eye on traffic levels, reporting back the traffic levels over specified periods and you did not know you were being counted.
Most of the large commercial buildings and outlets were closed up and had considerable stock due to the speed of the lockdown so we also needed to keep an eye on them. Crime all but disappeared during this time, no public order, no criminal damage, no burglaries but we did have a number of people driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.
We also carried out road checkpoints at different locations. We were a permanent feature over the Easter weekend at the Port Bridge in Letterkenny: ‘Where are you coming from? Is your journey essential? ’Where’s the Easter Bunny ? Did you see him? Everyone was being stopped.

Public play a positive role

We were very lucky on two fronts: The public were very nice and easy to deal with and the weather was just fabulous with sun most days and the nights were dry with no rain, bliss! Summer had come early and we appreciated it. Water and sun-cream were essential items. Who would believe it?

The public cooperation was top class and they were (mostly) a pleasure to deal with, very appreciative of the long hours standing and the work we were trying to do with the final goal to flatten that curve!.
Cars would pull up with tea and coffee on a cold night with ice-cream on a hot day - a little thank you for those who were performing the checkpoints.
The ladies had competitions on their fitbits and smartwatches who would do the most steps during a patrol? 20,000 steps were the norm and not a target anymore.
‘This is great, paid to walk not bad’ Kerry said to Niamh and they both disappeared into the night with their torches, stab vests and reflective jackets….. Laughing.

Surprises
It was amazing how quiet a large provincial town like Letterkenny became after 7pm and by 10pm nothing was moving except the odd Bus Éireann Expressway coming from or heading to Dublin with one or perhaps two passengers in the big double decker. By 6am things would start waking up again, the bread men, the delivery drivers the couriers (Five DPD vans in a queue at the Port Bridge Checkpoint one morning) starting a day’s work, then all the essential healthcare workers with the HSE coming on and going off duty. We were truly amazed by the number of NHS workers who live in and around Letterkenny but work in Northern Ireland. Everyone trying to protect care and flatten that curve.
It was certainly a strange time. Daily we would get updates about changes in legislation, ‘You have power to demand this, Do that’. Then perhaps a short time later a government announcement, ‘No’ ‘You don’t actually have that power but ah sure just work around it, be nice to the public and they will help you’.
And they did with good humour and a bit of common sense and a sense of community is much better than legislative powers any day. The good humour, laughter and banter of the young members was an enlightening experience in dealing with pedestrians and motorists alike with professionalism and courtesy the order of the day or night and I would like to acknowledge this and say thank you to all.

Turf was cut
Away from work the time off was appreciated. Turf was cut, dried and home in early June. The dog put up about 500kms walking around Burtonport. The bike was dusted down and oiled, tyres pumped and cycled all around beautiful and peaceful west Donegal.  It has been a sobering and enlightening experience to be living through such changed times but at least the hair got cut now and I certainly have had a little more time to reflect and enjoy it all.
To Sandra, Niamh, Gary, Brian, Shona, Kerry and last but not least Shane (where would we be without Shane with all his stories about the universe, the stars etc. at 4am on a Good Friday morning at the Port Bridge where the River Swilly flows gently along). They are my thoughts for Covid-19, so far. I was out with the young ones trying to keep people safe the same way as my son, John, was doing in the gardaí in Drogheda and I have to say, I am proud of that.

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