Time to redraw the thin blue line
Unusually for a police force, the Garda is the State's primary security service. photograph: cyril byrne
Public outpouring: the State funeral of Det Garda Adrian Donohoe this week. photographs: dara mac dónaill, peter muhly/afp/getty
An Garda Síochána reflects the best and worst of our public service. The moment has come for a review of the force
If anything positive can flow from the callous murder of Det Garda Adrian Donohoe, it has to be the outpouring of public sympathy and support for the Garda Síochána that has followed.
On the mercifully rare occasions before when a garda has been murdered in the line of duty it has been this way.
In April 1970, when Dick Fallon became the first garda to be killed on duty for 26 years, the crowds that lined the streets for his funeral were likened to those that had turned out to see President John F Kennedy in 1963.
The murder of Adrian Donohoe has shocked and saddened communities across the country, as did the deaths of the 12 other members murdered in the line of duty since 1970. The sense of widespread mourning, led by the President and other officers of State, has been palpable.
As a race we are not particularly noted for our love of regulation. Yet we hold the Garda Síochána close to our hearts in a relationship that would be considered somewhat unusual between police and people in many countries.
The roots of the relationship go back to decisions that were taken in 1922. The force was imbued with a spirit of proud Irishness as the new State asserted its identity. It was to be nonpolitical, unarmed and drawn from the people.
Imaginative, if unsuccessful, attempts were made to have it operate through the Irish language. Ranks and functions were designated in Irish. Its youthful members were to be hugely engaged with sport – Gaelic football, hurling, athletics, boxing.
Eoin O’Duffy, commissioner from 1922 to 1932, declared, “The Civic Guard is Irish in thought and action.”
It is a truism that a society’s values and standards are reflected in its police. This is particularly true where policing is by the consent of the people. The police organism will attune itself to the community’s needs and priorities. Therein lies the compact that defines the relationship.
That relationship here has survived many vicissitudes down the decades. As early as 1926, a crisis arose when the minister for home affairs, Kevin O’Higgins, demanded that O’Duffy discipline gardaí in Waterford who had rampaged against prisoners after two gardaí had been murdered. O’Duffy threatened to resign. O’Higgins called his bluff and the offending gardaí were dealt with.
Each decade has brought some controversy: the “Heavy Gang”, the fingerprints scandal and the sacking of a commissioner; illegal phone tapping and the “Kerry babies” fiasco; the breakdown in the Donegal division that led the Morris tribunal to warn that the Garda Síochána was “in danger of losing its character as a disciplined force.”
Many of the cliches about the gardaí are true. Like most other closed groups, they are not very good at investigating themselves. They display all of the characteristics of a closely knit family; they may squabble among themselves but they will instantly close ranks against outsiders. They have their share of bullies and louts. There are gardaí, as there are those in other professions, who abuse their authority. Some are insubordinate and lazy. Supervision is too often lax.
Yet the strong bonds between the gardaí and those they serve remain intact. Police forces around the world can only envy their Irish counterparts for the respect and affection in which athey are generally held.
Urbanisation, social change, modern communications and the increase in serious crime have seen the Garda Síochána evolve organisationally. Numbers have risen from just over 6,000 at foundation to more than 13,000. Once there were 870 stations; now there are 564. In the early years there were no armed gardaí. On any given day now, one in five gardaí will be carrying a firearm.