We need to depoliticise our police force

The Smithwick Tribunal report makes us consider the extent to which politics influence the operations of the Garda Síochána

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Garda Commisoner Martin Callinan speaking about the report of the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Garda Commisoner Martin Callinan speaking about the report of the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Sat, Dec 7, 2013, 01:00

The finding by the Smithwick Tribunal that at least one member of the Garda Síochána most likely colluded with the IRA in the killing of two members of the RUC in 1989 will shock many people. Judge Peter Smithwick also said the Garda was a force in which “loyalty is prized above honesty” – not only then but also now.

We expect our police to hold a level of respect for officers in other countries that would make such actions unthinkable. We also view that period of policing in Ireland as one in which the members of the Garda were in conflict with the IRA, constantly policing them an in effort to undermine and weaken their efforts.

In that context the thought of gardaí aiding the IRA makes us recoil. A natural reaction is to focus our disgust and disappointment on the individual members named by Smithwick, foul apples in an otherwise decent barrel.

Indeed, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter hinted at this on Tuesday, after the publication of the report, when he stated, “I have no doubt that the brave men and women of An Garda Síochána down through the years would be as appalled as anyone that any member of the force would betray them and the Irish people by offering assistance to terrorist organisations.”

Judge Smithwick invites us to confront an alternative reality: that the police do not operate in some isolated space but do work that is intricately woven into the political fabric of our society. “The culture of failing adequately to address suggestions of wrongdoing, either for reasons of political expediency or by virtue of misguided loyalty, has been a feature of life in this State.”

Police work continually intersects with political interests. What is problematic is when those political concerns affect, or dictate, how policing operates. Judge Smithwick’s findings challenge us to confront the extent of political involvement in Irish policing.

The policing of the IRA, and in particular the policing of the Border, brought these issues into sharp relief. The two tribunals in the past decade that have considered policing in Ireland have focused on activities along the Border.

My own research into those who policed the Border during the conflict shows that police work in that region was inherently political and that gardaí were all too aware of the potential ramifications of any task they performed.

Those political interests were complex: some governments sought to find a balance in responding as necessary while not compromising republican ideals. This could leave gardaí in a difficult position. Proactive policing of the IRA was not always desired politically and could also provoke retaliation from the IRA. One retired garda I spoke with had had his home petrol-bombed while he, his wife and their child slept, because he attempted to investigate criminal behaviour by a member of the IRA.

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