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Fateful decisions made 100 years ago have defined the Garda today

The force’s strengths and weaknesses can be traced back to a room in the Gresham in 1922

In the early spring days of February 1922 a group of young men established a working office in two rooms at the Gresham Hotel on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. They were to labour here for almost a month, planning the new police force for the Irish State just coming into being.

Their first meeting, on February 9th, had been chaired by Michael Collins, the head of the provisional government. Others present included Richard Mulcahy, Eamonn Duggan and a Dáil deputy, Michael Staines, who was to be the first commissioner. Already, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), was being disbanded, leaving the countryside without protection in a wave of violence and crime. The task in hand was an urgent one.

The membership included a number of teachtaí dála and senior military figures. But the largest contingent comprised former members of the RIC who had been important assets within Collins’s intelligence machine. He had little choice but to count on the expertise of these career policemen in creating a new force.

The decisions taken within those Gresham rooms were to define the new police force in its structures and its relationship with the future government of the State. Its strengths and weaknesses were cemented into place. The ground was laid for its future successes as well as its shortcomings. Today, 100 years on, those foundations remain with us, largely unchanged in their essentials.

The committee broke into working parties, dealing with the practicalities of establishing a new force: recruitment, training, equipment, pay and rations. Accommodation represented a major challenge as many of the RIC’s stations were now in ruins.

Default position

The task was formidable for young men with limited organisational experience. It was perhaps inevitable that the default position was to invoke the RIC model which had worked efficiently across the country for 100 years. (It might be noted that this year also marks the bicentenary of the constabulary, established in 1822). Thus an identical rank structure was settled upon. The RIC’s boundaries were copied. Even its disciplinary code was adopted, hastily translated into Irish.

The adaptation of British administrative models was the norm in the new, emerging State. It needed to establish functioning structures and the speediest way was to convert the existing systems. There was an excellent postal system, for example. All that was required was to paint the pillar boxes green and, in due course, issue new stamps.

Blue uniforms were to replace the bottle-green of the RIC. The ranking structure remained the same but the nomenclature was changed. The RIC’s badge with harp and crown was replaced by a Celtic sunburst. Importantly, in the light of subsequent developments, the new police, to be known as the Civic Guard, were to be armed in the same way as the RIC, with revolver, rifle and short bayonet.

But far and away the most significant copying of the RIC structure was the decision to centralise it, with a commissioner (taking the place of the RIC’s inspector general) reporting to government through the minister for home affairs. It was to be a gendarmerie with the same role as the RIC in relation to government. Significantly, this model was also adopted for the newly-formed Royal Ulster Constabulary.

If any consideration was given to the alternative system of policing – the constabulary model – as operated in Britain, there is no record of it. The constabularies had no security role, were unarmed and controlled locally by elected “watch” committees. Nothing could have more eloquently proclaimed the passing of the old order in Ireland than the adoption of a radically different policing system, community-based, unarmed and locally controlled. But it was not to be.

Slapped down

In 1923 in the Dáil, the Labour leader, Tom Johnson, urged a change, suggesting the creation of an independent policing authority. The idea was slapped down contemptuously by minister for home affairs Kevin O’Higgins. By now the Civic Guard had become the “Garda Síochána”, having been disarmed after the members had mutinied in barracks, driving out the commissioner, Staines, and his staff. Many of the early recruits were dismissed and fresh recruitment got under way in 1923 under the new commissioner, Eoin O’Duffy. The promulgation at this point of the “unarmed garda” concept was pragmatic but also a public-relations coup for the new State.

The Garda Síochána’s centralised structure, operating as a direct agency of government, discharging both civil policing and security functions, has undoubtedly been one of its greatest strengths, enabling it to hold the line successfully against political violence down the decades. But those same structures have also facilitated the shadowy behaviour by some members that has unfortunately from time to time marred its reputation.

As the force marks its centenary, the Irish people will acknowledge its enormous contribution, its special place in Irish society and the courage and dedication of its members, more than 70 of whom have laid down their lives on duty.

It would be unrealistic to expect the founding committee to have spent too much time in reflection with a civil war in the offing. Nonetheless it is tempting to speculate what the shape of Irish policing might be today had they looked beyond Irish shores and beyond Ireland’s immediate historic experience.

Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times and Garda Ombudsman.