A Poor Showing by the Guards


The Garda Síochána has acquired a great many skills as it has professionalised over recent years. Unhappily, as events in Dublin on Monday showed, crowd control is not chief among them.

The undisciplined scenes recorded by cameras and described by eye-witnesses do no credit to a modern police service which is well-equipped and supposedly well-trained.

Some of the crowd provoked the gardaí and others, realising that trouble was brewing, leaped in to join the fray. Well-trained and well-directed police forces usually respond to this sort of situation tactically. They seek to isolate the leaders and trouble-makers. They keep the crowds on the move and where possible break up large concentrations with flying-wedge movements. Where necessary, they make targeted arrests.

There are well-developed police techniques for dealing with crowds which are unruly, unpredictable and in which agents provocateurs may be at work. If these are taught at Templemore the lessons do not appear to translate into real-life situations on the street. The response on Monday appears to have been incoherent, unprofessional and, in some cases, brutal.

It is deeply disturbing to see what happens with some - repeat, some - gardaí when the leash comes off, as it will when the response to a public order situation is itself disorganised. Officers become aggressive and over-react. Hostile trouble-makers and unthreatening onlookers are treated as one and the use of the baton becomes indiscriminate. Regulations prescribing how and when the baton may be used go by the board. A frequent complaint is that gardaí remove their identification numbers. That is unlikely, for there has never been a case of a member facing disciplinary action, much less a charge, for assault in this sort of situation. Why bother?

The garda authorities must be mindful of the enormous loss of public goodwill and confidence which follows a debacle like this. If gardaí act like this in the sight of cameras, citizens ask, what may happen in the station? The majority of the crowd were peaceful young people, out for a holiday treat, with nothing further from their minds than trouble. Most of them will have gone home puzzled and angry by what happened to them and their friends. No amount of lip-service or hand-wringing from the Depot will take away the sense of shock, the loss of respect.

Some accounts from Monday suggest that the gardaí were surprised by the size of the crowd and by the aggressive element which materialised within it. Surely this should not have been so. There is an advanced command and control system across the city centre with numerous CCTV monitors. A garda helicopter was overhead. It makes one shudder what would happen to the centre of Dublin if the capital were to be the scene of some of the large-scale anti-globalisation protests which have taken place abroad.

Dublin's turn will come when next Ireland takes the presidency of the EU. Monday's events suggest that the Garda has a great deal of work to do in order to get its act together. It must do better than the 19th Century billyclub mindset that was apparent in Dublin city centre on Monday.