Tánaiste Leo Varadkar will become taoiseach again on December 17th. In the course of what was publicised as an exclusive media interview outlining his priorities when he resumes the office of Taoiseach, he was asked in the wake of the brutal assault on gardaí in west Dublin whether he favoured arming gardaí. He said that he would “absolutely” favour doing so if Garda Commissioner Drew Harris requested it. If such a request were made by “the commissioner and his team”, Varadkar said he certainly would not “block it”. He added that arming gardaí should be a “call” for the commissioner “rather than politicians”.
Starting with the last point, it is surprising and concerning that the next taoiseach should believe (if he really does believe it) that the decision to arm gardaí is not a call for politicians to make. I am afraid that such a statement underlines what is becoming an increasingly worrying tendency among some politicians to abdicate responsibility in deciding controversial issues to outside officeholders or bodies rather than insist on the right of democratically elected politicians to decide them.
It may get you past a difficult interview question to say that arming gardaí is a “call” for the commissioner to make. It may lend a phony degree of earnestness to condemnation of the brutality of the assaults on members of the force. It may even say to unthinking people that he is only held back from arming gardaí by a judgment call not yet made by the commissioner. But the remarks were at very best ill-judged and at worst irresponsible in the sense that the decision is one where responsibility must lie exclusively with our elected politicians and the elected government.
Armed Garda detectives have sadly borne a greater share of lethal violence proportionately when compared with their unarmed uniformed colleagues
I have the height of respect for Harris and I have consistently publicly supported his reforms. But it’s not his “call” in any sense. He may express his views (whatever they may be) or give advice on the matter to Government or to the Minister or to the governing institutions of An Garda Siochána. But any suggestion that he bears responsibility for such a decision is both unfair and wrong. It risks dragging him into wholly unnecessary controversy.
And, by the way, the decision is very definitely a matter for the elected Oireachtas and Government, and not one for any so-called “independent” authority to make either.
But on the broader issue of arming gardaí, there is every reason not to do so. A largely unarmed policing strategy has served the State very well for a century now. It is the embodiment of the idea of policing by consent.
That is not to say that gardaí should not be adequately equipped with appropriate non-lethal means in terms of defensive and enforcement clothing and devices to suppress disorder and enforce the law. In my boyhood, gardaí on the beat in Dublin still had hefty, impressive-looking baton cases on their belts. They had the means to defend themselves.
Nowadays, the same purpose may be better served by pepper-sprays, tasers (in some cases) and concealed batons. It may even be that night-sticks should be carried where that is the judgment of local police management. But we have to avoid unnecessarily giving the public any impression that gardaí routinely resemble RoboCop. That is not the image we need. It doesn’t foster the relationship that underlies policing by consent.
Difficult though that policy may be, it has served us well. Arming gardaí would, in my view, escalate the danger to their lives rather than reducing it. Armed Garda detectives have sadly borne a greater share of lethal violence proportionately when compared with their unarmed uniformed colleagues.
The issue of body-camera use is currently under discussion with opinion divided. On balance, I favour their use in some contexts.
But we have to look to foreign experience of policing with firearms to gain a perspective. The US experience is not one that would encourage most people to support having every garda tote a firearm – especially if the motive was to discourage non-lethal assaults on gardaí.