There is a depressing familiarity to the current policing scandals. It feels as if barely a week goes by that there is not some other twist or turn in the debacle that surrounds the Garda Síochána.
The themes are familiar: gardaí misusing their discretionary powers, allegations not being properly investigated, and questions about the role of those external to the organisation, such as the Department of Justice, the Minister for Justice and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. All are swiftly followed by grand gestures promising fundamental reform. To say that these themes are familiar is to comment not on recent events but on recent decades.
Reform that brings change will need to take account of current problems, and for this we must appreciate, understand and analyse Ireland’s policing past. Such problems do not simply appear overnight in an organisation of this size and nature. They evolve over time, in response to varying contexts.
Into this comes Conor Brady's latest book on Irish policing, The Guarding of Ireland: The Garda Síochána & the Irish State 1960-2014. Brady wrote Guardians of the Peace, which focused on the early decades of the force, in 1974. Having held the position of editor of The Irish Times for 16 years, Brady then became one of the first Garda Ombudsman commissioners. This career leaves his knowledge of the policing of Ireland beyond reproach.
The Guarding of Ireland focuses on Irish policing from 1969, which saw both the publication of the Conroy report and the commencement of the Troubles, up to the current and ongoing scandals that this year have led to the resignation of both a commissioner and a minister for justice.
Morris, McCabe, Bailey, the Heavy Gang, Kerry babies, Nicky Kelly, Abbeylara, fingerprints, phone-tapping: the litany of failures is familiar. The Provisional IRA, drugs, the General, smuggling across the Border, deaths on the roads, acknowledging the abuse of women and children: the range of challenges is intimidating. Perhaps less discussed are the successes and achievements, but all find a home here.
In truth this book is not a history of the Garda Síochána. If so it would be an underassessment of the force’s achievements. It is more fully an account of the security of the State, as much an analysis of the politics of policing as it is of the policing itself. The Troubles, the modernisation of the force, and the rise in crime, drugs and organised crime are all documented in a style that is detailed but still engaging.
Researching policing and security in Ireland over recent decades is a difficult task. Much remains shrouded by the 30-year- rule, and even where that has passed, national-security interests cloak more still. Brady must be praised for his adept reading across sources to present what is at times a seamless account, in spite of these difficulties.
In particular, he deeply contextualises the policing of the 1970s and 1980s, unpicking the impact of each event on the next and unravelling the political machinations. Relationships with both the police force in Northern Ireland and with the British political establishment ensure a depth of understanding necessary for a true sense of the scale of the problems faced. Insights into the relationship between Garda HQ and the Department of Justice garnered through high-level interviews are particularly fascinating.
Face or opinion?
That said, one can’t help but sometimes feel that Brady has read more into his material than might be justified. On occasion he presents the views of people he has interviewed as fact when they could more accurately be described as opinion. On other occasions he provides no sources for statements of real significance. This can be frustrating, whether one wishes to learn more about a particular incident or disagrees with the statement made. For instance, relationships between the IRA and both Dublin Housing Action Committee and Concerned Parents Against Drugs are mentioned. Any group aligned at all with the IRA could expect particular attention from the Garda, but both challenged such assertions.
Far from academic pedantry, if we are going to understand and analyse these moments in our policing history, then accuracy about that past is essential. This is particularly the case given that Shell 2 Sea activists, whom Brady does not discuss, have said in recent years that relationships with the IRA were attributed to them in an effort to undermine support for their cause. An indication of Brady’s source on these points would greatly assist further exploration of these ambiguities.
Undoubtedly Brady presents a fascinating historical account, but arguably of greater importance are the themes and patterns that emerge across his book. Indeed, there is a depressing inevitability to the final years and pages: political interference, a poor relationship between Garda management and the department, weak accountability, and a delay in modernisation that left gardaí on the back foot, whether against the IRA or drug gangs. Absent are meaningful efforts at reform that might remedy this, although the final pages bring new promises of a police authority.
There are times when it is clear that Brady’s career has given him insights and understandings that others could not have. There is, however, something of a disjuncture in the book: once the author reaches the late 1980s, the skilful interweaving that produces a rich, chronological account is replaced with a more thematic approach. Chapters begin to scan decades, as topics such as drugs, the Morris tribunal, gang crime in Limerick and so on are discussed discretely. Neither approach is flawed in itself, although it does lend a somewhat disjointed feeling.
Brady does not take the opportunity to reflect on his time at GSOC; this is not an autobiography, so perhaps it felt inappropriate. Save for pointing to the now well-versed problems that the commission has experienced, his comments on the Ombudsman are limited.
Brady openly describes the limitations of the 2005 reforms, but it is his criticisms of the relationship between police and politics that are perhaps strongest: “Historically, there was an unwritten code: the Gardaí gave unswerving loyalty to the political authority and the political authority would back the Gardaí, right or wrong.”
For those tasked with reforming the policing of Ireland – a much greater task than reforming the Garda – there is much to be gained from grasping the historical account presented in this book.
Brady does not engage in any substantial analysis; he recounts facts so that readers can draw their own conclusions. But the prime issues for reform are clear – and, as Brady concludes, if these are not addressed “the cycle of superficial reform followed by crisis that has prevailed over many decades will continue”.