How will Covid-19 affect our relationship with the Garda?

After years of crises the force faces its biggest challenge in a century

Gardaí patrolling a quiet Henry Street in Dublin on Easter Sunday. Despite isolated incidents, public compliance with draconian Covid-19 legislation remains extremely high. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Gardaí patrolling a quiet Henry Street in Dublin on Easter Sunday. Despite isolated incidents, public compliance with draconian Covid-19 legislation remains extremely high. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

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The Irish cholera outbreak of 1832 can teach us a lot about the current coronavirus pandemic. Like today, the crisis saw a desperate search for quick cures, many of which had little basis in science (whiskey and ginger was one), and the need to find a scapegoat for the disease. Back then it was doctors, who some believed were spreading the disease so they could make money from treating patients. Today it is immigrants and 5G technology.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the 1832 outbreak was how quickly law and order broke down. Rioting followed the path of the pandemic in many countries, including Ireland. Observers recorded riots in Dublin, Kerry, Donegal, Mayo and Sligo. Whatever relationship the population had with the authorities and the nascent Irish Constabulary quickly broke down as fear and mistrust spread through communities.

It would be dramatic bordering on absurd to suggest we face similar prospects as we battle coronavirus today. Despite isolated incidents, public compliance with the draconian legislation introduced remains extremely high. A survey last week found 85 per cent of people are practising social distancing and 82 per cent believed the State was doing a good job.

But how long can this continue? And what impact will the restrictions have on the relationship between the public and the Garda Síochána, a relationship which had only just recovered following years of scandals and crisis?

Policing by consent

There is always a danger whenever draconian legislation is introduced that it will damage the image of the Garda as a community-focused force which polices by consent, says Dr Johnny Connolly, a University of Limerick academic and former member of the Commission on the Future of Policing (CFP).

“Policing by consent, particularly in the age of social media, can be a bit like walking on eggshells. You can have a few overzealous guards, for example, who are captured on social media and go viral. That can have a hugely damaging impact.”

He points to the emergency anti-gang measures introduced following the murder of Veronica Guerin, “some more useful than others”, which were widely condemned by human rights groups.

A large tailback ahead of a Garda checkpoint on the M4 near Celbridge, Co Kildare. Despite isolated incidents, public compliance with draconian Covid-19 legislation remains extremely high. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
A large tailback ahead of a Garda checkpoint on the M4 near Celbridge, Co Kildare. More than 140 people were arrested last weekend during Covid-19 patrols and checkpoints using road traffic laws and public order legislation. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

“It’s really important to be conscious of excessive police power and how it’s used.”

However, Connolly believes there is a major difference this time around. He says the anti-gang laws of the late 1990s are sometimes referred to as “legislation by moral panic”, while the even more draconian laws introduced last month are rooted in clear data and have a clear goal: to stop the spread of the disease and keep as many people as possible alive.

“Now, of course, all of this is imperfect. But it is symbolically very, very different in terms of how responses have been formed.”

It is too early to pass judgment on how gardaí and the State are handling their new powers of arrest and detention. There is reason to be hopeful that the powers will be used sparingly but also some cause for concern. Last weekend only seven people were arrested under the legislation and gardaí reported widespread compliance. However, 144 others were arrested during Covid-19 patrols and checkpoints using other laws such as road traffic and public order legislation. Anecdotes have also spread about mild garda overreach. Several people have complained to this reporter about being chastised by gardaí for travelling too far to do their food shopping while RTÉ’s Liveline programme heard about a gravedigger who was admonished by gardaí for allowing others to come with him to help him with his work.

Since the crisis began the Garda has been extremely active on social media, using its platforms to encourage and occasionally shame people into obeying the rules. Most posts are met with positivity but not all. This week the Garda account shared a photo of a couple sitting in the sun in the Phoenix Park. “We advised these two sun worshipers and in fairness they headed off,” it stated.

“Gardaí relishing their new powers to hassle people more like,” was one broadly typical reply.

The Garda mounted division on duty on O’Connell Street, Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
The Garda mounted division on duty on O’Connell Street, Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

However, these are isolated incidents which are far outweighed by reports of positive experiences with friendly and helpful gardaí.

“You have to remember, approaching people, talking to them and convincing them in a friendly way to do something is probably 70 per cent of frontline police work in normal times. We’re well used to it,” said a Co Kildare Garda who had just finished twelve hours on checkpoints in the county.

“You will always get a cranky [garda] who is having a bad day who will be short with people. But it’s not in our interests to hassle people or arrest them if we don’t have to. We don’t want to be bringing potentially sick people to a cell and to court. There’s not much social distancing in a Garda station.”

Community relations

On a sunny day last week in Dublin’s north inner city, a group of five young men had gathered on some wasteground to smoke and pass around a can of cider when they were spotted by two female gardaí. Each of the men were at least a foot taller than the gardaí and onlookers out for their 2km stroll stopped to watch what happened next. If they were looking for drama they were disappointed. After chatting and joking with the two gardaí for a minute the men dispersed and went their separate ways.

When senior gardaí drafted the guidelines underpinning their new powers, a major worry was how to operate in communities which traditionally mistrust the gardaí.

According to Eddie D’Arcy who runs the Solas Project, an outreach project for at-risk youths in Dublin city centre, “things are not too bad” in terms of community relations and compliance.

“We’ve been at pains to explain to our young people that the extra guards on the street are nothing to do with them, that they’re not picking on them.”

“We try and explain it to them that it’s about making sure your granny doesn’t get sick. We were concerned with extra guards on the street that there would be tensions but so far we haven’t seen much. Just a few of the young lads complaining they can’t go out and buy weed.”

But D’Arcy wonders how long this can be maintained. “The level of boredom is increasing and people will begin to ignore the lockdown by gathering in parks. That’s when we could see increased conflict.”

Gardaí from Boyle, Co Roscommon, help unload food donated by local businesses. Photograph: Brian Farrell/The Irish Times
Gardaí from Boyle, Co Roscommon, help unload food donated by local businesses. Gardaí are now spending much of their time checking on the elderly and collecting shopping for those unable to leave their homes. Photograph: Brian Farrell/The Irish Times

Opportunity

Connolly points out that, as well as posing a threat to garda-community relations, the current crisis is also an opportunity. “And you should never let a good crisis go to waste.”

This is a sentiment shared by a senior garda with a background in community policing. “This is the biggest challenge for the guards since we were established, but it’s also one of our biggest opportunities. Most people have very little dealings with An Garda so every interaction in situations like this are a chance to cement relations, or do the opposite.”

Much of this is done through the use of discretion, says Connolly, something which is a key tool in the Garda’s armoury. They must know when to enforce the letter of the law, such as in domestic violence situations, or when to take a more benign approach, such as when they encounter pensioners walking 2.5km from home, he says. “In many ways, gardaí are street level politicians.”

The crisis also presents an opportunity to highlight the “unglamorous but hugely valuable work” that gardaí carry out every day in urban and rural communities,” says Prof Donncha O’Connell, law lecturer at NUI Galway and Connolly’s former colleague on the CFP.

“A huge amount of work is under way to restore public trust and confidence in An Garda and a crisis such as the current one allows the guards to showcase the excellent work that they do to reduce harm and ensure community safety.”

Since the start of March, gardaí have been spending much of their day checking on the elderly and collecting shopping for those unable to leave their homes. The CFP says it found that most gardaí viewed this community-focused work as the most important part of their job but that it was never supported by the force’s management. That at least may be starting to change.

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