Tracing the course of the thin blue line

Vicky Conway’s history of An Garda Síochána both interprets the evolution of the force and judges where it stands today

Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Sat, Nov 16, 2013, 01:00


Book Title:
Policing Twentieth Century Ireland: A History of An Garda Siochana


Vicky Conway

Routledge Solon Books

Guideline Price:

Irish policing history, long a largely barren field, continues to draw new attention from scholars as additional sources become available. Vicky Conway’s Policing Twentieth Century Ireland: A History of An Garda Síochána is particularly valuable, as it brings the story up to date. She addresses, among other things, the problem of modern organised crime, the impact of the Donegal scandals and the effect of the measures that followed the Garda Síochána Act of 2005.

There is an additional value here. Dr Conway is a sociologist and a lawyer more than she is a historian. So she is not content merely to be a narrator of what has gone before. She offers both an interpretation of the evolution of the Garda and an adjudication on where it stands today. Her principal reference points in the latter are the events in Donegal and the reforms recommended by the Morris tribunal that investigated them. “Nearly ten years on,” she concludes, “it seems that the experience of policing Ireland has only become more difficult while the reforms have been insufficient to prevent a recurrence.”

With a little more than 200 pages, she has had to encapsulate much of the early story of the Garda rather tightly. She does this skilfully, placing a persuasive sociohistorical framework around the foundation and development of the force. This framework, she argues, continues even still to insulate it to a great degree from criticism. The Garda has to be defined as a police force in the classic postcolonial mould, she argues. Control of the police was to be centralised and politicised, held in tightly under the authority of the new State. So it remains today.

She draws on the findings of the American sociologist Peter Manning, who has described a sort of sacred zone around the Garda. The gardaí were emblematic of the new, emerging State; they have always done their duty by that State; they are of the people, and the people will stand by them.

This, she says, is the discourse around the Garda. But it is not the reality. She is deeply critical of its historic propensity to use force unnecessarily. She describes the closing of ranks against outside inquiry or oversight. (Her previous work, The Blue Wall of Silence, narrated the obstruction and dishonesty that faced both the Morris tribunal and the earlier investigation by Assistant Commissioner Kevin Carty.)

At the same time one has the sense that she is bemused by – perhaps even in awe of – an organisation that is consistently rated as the most trusted institution in the country. The guards enjoy greater confidence than the courts, the churches and the leading professions. They are far ahead of the news media and leave the politicians standing.

Although people accept that “gardaí may abuse their powers”, she concludes, this does not “translate into a lack of confidence”. The reality is that many people sympathise with the police in facing organised crime, violent deviancy and antisocial behaviour. And there is a reluctance to condemn such abuse that often stops just short of encouragement.

A unique feature of Conway’s book is the weaving in of interviews with more than 40 recently serving gardaí, ranging from assistant commissioner to guard. The interviews are anonymised, which might seem to detract from their authority, but this will have enabled the subjects to express themselves with more frankness. Gardaí, even by the standards of officers elsewhere, are notoriously tight-lipped – and, as the author says, are “professional interviewers” themselves. She notes their use of silence, a “quizzical look, without a word”, sometimes prompting her to rephrase her questions.

The interviews do not reveal any State secrets or throw significant light on any of the major incidents that engaged the security services. Their value lies in their exposition of the routine work of policing and the values and mores than underpin it. The narratives dealing with anti-subversive work, particularly along the Border, are revealing. The reader gets a sense of the conflicted role of gardaí, usually unarmed, generally without clear instructions and often in physical danger. If there is now to be an examination of the role of the State in combating the IRA (as suggested by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore at the British-Irish Association), men like these may have much to tell.

There is a focus in Conway’s narrative on gardaí’s use of unnecessary violence. It has been an issue since the earliest days. But it is hardly to be wondered at in a society where the physical chastisement of deviancy was the norm for so long. Teachers, priests, nuns and brothers operated with the strap or the rod. Children were beaten. Could the police in the past have been expected to act any differently?

The core issue for Conway is accountability. She finds the reforms of the 2005 Act wanting. Its sponsor, Michael McDowell, described it as the most profound legislation for policing since the establishment of the force, in 1922. She is not persuaded. Political control remains. The thrust of her criticism is correct. There is an illusion of reform; underneath, little enough has changed. The Garda Ombudsman’s limited role has been circumscribed. The Garda Inspectorate is merely advisory.

At £80, this book is not going to have long queues building up in the bookstores. And there are editing flaws that should not be here at this price. The rank of commissioner is equated to district inspector in the Royal Irish Constabulary. That equivalent was, of course, inspector general. “Baton round” appears where “baton charge” is intended. The founder of the Garda Technical Bureau was George, not Gerald, Lawlor. And the index is irritatingly incomplete.

But Conway displays a mastery of her subject. The book is not flattering of the political culture within which the Garda has had to operate. It challenges the self-serving rhetoric that the political establishment usually applies to policing issues. It makes a cogent argument for more honesty, accountability and democratisation in the relationship between the State and its police. But there is, unhappily, little likelihood of that plea being answered.

Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times and author of a history of An Garda Síochána

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