The gay garda who is improving life in the force for LGBT officers
Paul Franey is one of eight gardaí who will march in Belfast’s Pride march
Garda Inspector Paul Franey: concerned that there are some officer who still do not feel comfortable enough to “come out”. Photograph: Alan Betson
Sitting in Terenure College when he was in transition year more than 20 years ago Paul Franey wrote essays about policing: “It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, since I was a little kid,” he explains now.
Nothing, perhaps, unusual there but Franey had come out as gay when he was 16 at a time when significant progress had been made on gay equality, but with more to do.
Following Terenure College, the Rathfarnham native, who is the eldest of three, headed to University College, Dublin for a degree in sociology and politics. When he was 22, he joined the Garda Síochána.
Today, Franey, now a Garda inspector, will be one of eight gardaí, and the most senior, to take part in the Pride march in Belfast – the first time gardaí will appear in public in uniform as gay gardaí on the island of Ireland.
“Joining the gardaí was always the plan, college was just a means to get a degree. I wanted to get some sort of qualification before I joined the gardaí,” says the 39-year-old Franey.
Though his mother was worried when he “came out” at 16, his parents were always supportive of his plans and always accepted that he had no desire to join the family’s business.
Asked if his parents were concerned about their son being a “gay guard”, he acknowledges that they were probably a little nervous that he was “going into a very conservative institution”.
Before joining the Garda Síochána, Franey worked with a number of LGBT organisations and was the LGBT liaison officer in UCD during his years studying there.
“I knew I was going to join the guards. The plan was to leave that advocacy community support role behind, my thinking was ‘You’re joining the guards to become a guard’ and that’s it.”
However, he held his counsel during his first days in Templemore College: “The day I walked into Templemore I decided I wasn’t going to come out . . . for now. It was pre-social media so you’d a certain amount of privacy in those days.”
Word, however, has a way of spreading quickly, particularly in a uniformed force where links are strong: “It didn’t take much longer than a few days for someone to know someone for it to get out.
“I learned in the first week or two that there were people literally having meetings about my sexual orientation behind my back and asking questions like, ‘Have we a right to know this?’
“Within a few weeks everyone knew. It was never discussed. In the end I got on brilliant in my class, they were a great group of people and I think, like a lot of guards, Templemore wasn’t something they enjoyed.
“But it was something they got through because it was required to move on to the next step. It was a process that had to be gone through,” he tells The Irish Times, sitting in his office in the Garda’s Strategic Planning Unit in Ashtown, not far from Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park.
Following Templemore, he served in Mountjoy station as a student garda and in Fitzgibbon Street as a probationer, where he stayed for 3½ years. Following that it was back to Mountjoy for two years of community policing.
Franey then was offered a human resources post in the Phoenix Park: “It was one of the biggest learning opportunities I ever had, in terms of how an organisation works, seeing beyond just front-line policing to seeing a police organisation and how it functions, how it doesn’t function. For anyone with an interest in change, in bringing about change, 3½ years in HR taught me everything I needed to know to move on. Everything I’ve achieved since then has been on the foundation built there.”
However, human resources, though valuable, was not why he had become a garda, so he moved back to the front line as a station sergeant in Clontarf on Dublin’s northside.
From there, he went to the assistant commissioner’s office in special criminal operations: “I’ve had the great learning opportunities that came from working in front-line sections, specialist sections.”
By then he had been openly “out” for many years. When he was just a few months into his first posting in Fitzgibbon Street, he decided not to hide his sexual orientation.
“I didn’t ‘come out’ I just started living my life, having normal conversations. Everyone knew anyway. The information had reached them before I’d arrived. It’s a small community.
Here, he stops: “In an organisation that at that time had 11,500 sworn police officers – it took me three years to find number two. That was instructive.
“When I found a few more people like myself, I realised there’s something wrong here. The fact that the people I met were having such challenges associated with their sexual orientation, were finding it so important to hide every little aspect to this, really got me thinking.
“I’d gone into the guards saying ‘right LGBT activism – over and gone’, I didn’t join for this, then I found myself going, ‘right, if you don’t no one else will’ so I suppose I started organising the troops.”
Saying he does not know how many openly gay gardaí there are, Franey is concerned that there are some who still do not feel comfortable enough to “come out”.
Instead, they can go into work “pretending to be someone they’re not”. That can be a strain, he feels, one that can lead on to depression and alcoholism. He wonders how many were unable to cope over the years.
Every posting brings its own challenges: “When you leave Templemore you just want to go and do police work, you’ve got your badge, your uniform, your radio, you want to go out there.
“It’s serious, it’s difficult, while you’re dealing with aggression or dead bodies, lunacy becomes the norm, the most peculiar parts of society, the most difficult things you could imagine – they’re your daily job.
“Very quickly you adjust. Your daily job is dealing with this stuff. Most people adapt very quickly. You just get on with it. If you can’t, you won’t function. I didn’t find any of my postings particularly difficult.”
Some landmarks stand out for him after 17 years in the force: a north inner-city community police forum that is still running 12 years after he set it up, or his work as a career coach with colleagues.
“HR taught me that all the problems and all the solutions in the Garda at the moment revolve around HR issues. They revolve around people. The Garda is a very people-based organisation.
“We have a massive pool of really competent people, really caring and passionate police officers in the front line, much more engaged in communities than police officers I’ve met from around the world,” he said.
“When you tap into that, when you help people see what they can achieve, when you help show the value of what they do to them and bring them on a little bit, the impact that can have on policing is phenomenal.
“We have fantastic people on the front line, we’ve fantastic people backing up services and we haven’t invested heavily enough in coaching, mentoring, support, provision for front-line officers.
“I saw it in HR – you put the right sergeant on to a unit, it’ll be a fantastic unit. Stick the wrong person in and the unit simply won’t function. How we select people, how we develop people, how we encourage people and show them that what they do every day is really valuable, impacts on their capacity to deliver.
“That to me is everything. How do you show people in an organisation that’s as important as ours, doing work that’s as important as ours, how valuable the work that they do is for communities, for people who are victims of crimes?”
The career-coaching seminar costs €25, but the money goes to charity. So far, they have raised €4,700 which has gone to the Irish Cancer Society and Pieta House, along with his favourite, the youth LGBT support network, Belong To.
“Most of the money goes to them. They’re very strapped for cash. They’ve supported me when I’ve organised training for guards and they deliver that training for free at my request,” he says.
Since 2006, Franey has attended gatherings of the European Gay Police Association (EGPA) in Stockholm, the first garda to do so: “It changed totally the way I thought about policing and about being gay in the police.
“It took me from the place where I was saying, ‘I’m joining the guards I’m not doing that work any more’, to me going ‘Actually, yeah, we’ve a ton of work to do here’ . . . and no one else is going to do it.”
He was quickly appointed as the EGPA’s Irish country representative: “Things were challenging in Ireland at the time. LGBT advocacy – all the diversity and inclusion in the workplace, wasn’t on the agenda.
“It was tough, but it showed you something to work towards, showed what things could be like. We saw some great stuff happening across Europe, but it was only in pockets.
“The UK were great, the Dutch were great. After that not so much. There were struggles, but people were definitely ahead of us. I thought we can’t continue like this.
“If most gay guards feel it’s necessary to come into work each day and lie and pretend to be something they’re not then we have a serious problem and we have to address it,” he went on.
Every other country’s police had an LGBT employee network: “These were hugely important,” he says. “You could have gay police officers who could meet other gay officers and just go for a drink and have a conversation and not have to hide.
“So I decided we really needed something similar in Ireland. That’s what started the long, slow, quite tedious process of setting up G Force. It was the most important project I ever did. It was important, but not enjoyable. It was hugely challenging and I learned a lot from it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.
“It’s management’s job to manage. It shouldn’t be up to the ‘gay garda’ or the ‘Chinese garda’ to be a ‘poster boy’ for a respectful and inclusive workplace,” he declared, emphatically.
“Frontline officers across Europe have taken risks so that their colleagues could feel comfortable coming to work. They took the lead as their managers wouldn’t support their staff. That’s wrong.
“I came home thinking, ‘Well, they’ve sorted everything in Europe and we’re a disaster’. The reality was it was sort of a disaster in most places across Europe and we were just slightly behind them.
“I side-stepped the board role. I was on it a long time, it was time to move off and let other people get involved,” he said, “They asked if I’d stay and do the training work, so I did.
“Because it’s a very practical way to design materials that police officers across the EU to make life better for both LGBT police officers and the public,” he said. Now, Franey is helping the Council of Europe to design training programmes.
“We don’t have some of the acute issues that they face on the continent, so the material for us wasn’t necessarily suitable. I’d been trying to get through to the Council of Europe for years that we need one good LGBT hate-crime manual that essentially covers all the bases, provides all the skills they need, and can be quite adaptable and be used anywhere.”
Different countries have differing training programmes, but there was nothing that covered all the LGBT issues that could help officers “at a crime scene in a very practical way”.
Commenting on President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender people in the US military, Franey says:
“It is always a cause for concern when you see a minority group being scapegoated particularly for the purposes of hiding other problems.
“The trans community is a really soft target, really easy to pick on. Most people don’t know what’s going on, they don’t really get the concept. Transgender people are still exceptionally vulnerable.
“The community is very small in terms of being an open, visible community, they’re easy targets. If it can happen in America, it can happen across Europe. It is worrying,” he said.
Unwilling to comment on the Templemore accounting controversy that has dominated Oireachtas Public Account Committee meetings, the Phoenix Park-based Franey understands the frustrations of front-line officers.
“It’s challenging when you’re getting this stuff thrown back at you all the time, the only answers to these problems are – for those people – everyday positive engagement.
“We’ve a really, really good policing structure here that they don’t have anywhere else. The community policing ethos that we have has kept the Garda going no matter how difficult things have got.
“I don’t see much evidence of that when I deal with a lot of European police services. It’s just not there. A huge amount has changed in An Garda Síochána in the last 17 years, the last three especially.
“Ireland has moved on and so has the guards. There are still big challenges, but we’re entering a whole new era of policing. Change is coming and it’s coming fast.”