An Garda Síochána Celebrate 100 Years

Peter McNamara

On February 22nd last, Garda personnel across all ranks and grades took part in An Garda Síochána’s centenary ‘A Day in the Life’ online project, to commemorate the first recruits who joined the organisation on that day 100 years ago.

In the century since the first Garda recruits made their way to the RDS to begin their formal training on February 21st, 1922, thousands of people have dedicated their working lives as Gardaí, protecting communities and keeping the people of Ireland safe. Within its first six weeks of existence, some 700 were in training to become members of An Garda Síochána; today there are over 14,000 Gardaí working nationwide, with more to be added in the current recruitment campaign. Although the last 100 years of policing in Ireland has not been without its scandals, and many issues around corruption and transparency still endure, one cannot deny the contribution of these ordinary – and mostly unarmed – men and women to the safety of Irish society.

There has been much ado at Garda HQ. Along with their centenary celebrations, the
force has also revealed their all-new uniform – gone are the stiff blue collars and ties: in – a looser, swankier, and perhaps more friendly polo shirt. This marks their third costume change in a century.

Slán Leat to the Royal

Irish Constabulary

Speaking about the recent centenary celebrations, Deputy Commissioner for Policing and Security, Anne Marie McMahon noted the bravery of those first recruits who came forward to train as Gardaí. I don’t think anyone would disagree, they were signing up during a “very difficult period” in this nation’s history.

Prior to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, Ireland was policed by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Needless to say, due to their loyalty to the old British regime and their association with the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans, the RIC was totally unacceptable to the vast majority of Irish people. The country needed a new policing agency.

The inaugural meeting of a committee responsible for the foundation of a new police force took place in January 1922 at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin. The chairman was Michael Staines, a member of the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and a veteran of the Easter Rising of 1916, in which he served as Quartermaster General in the GPO. He was also a member of Dáil Éireann. By 21st February 1922, the committee issued instructions to the Volunteer Brigade commanders to begin recruiting suitable candidates for the new police force which was to be armed and known as the “Civic Guards”. These recruits were to be single men, at least 5’9’’ tall and able to pass examinations in arithmetic, reading, and spelling. The first Commissioner of the new force was – perhaps unsurprisingly – the aforementioned Michael Staines.

Initially, the first recruits were trained at the RDS Ballsbridge but were soon to be relocated to Kildare Military Barracks. Here, on 15th May 1922, whilst Staines was delivering his morning address, over 1,000 guards broke ranks and seized the armoury. Staines and his senior officers had to flee the scene.

It took Michael Collins, as chairman of the Provisional Government seven weeks to bring about an end to the mutiny. It was said to have been caused by anti-treaty sympathisers amongst the recruits objecting to the use of ex-RIC members as instructors in the force. Staines handed in his resignation which was accepted in August – a short-lived posting it has to be said. He was replaced by General Eoin O’Duffy.

It was not until the middle of September that members of the Garda Síochana were diffused to various locations throughout the country. On Ship Street the force suffered its first fatality when 19-year-old Garda Charles Eastwood was accidentally killed by a comrade. This accident led to the disarming of the uniformed members of the force. Considering that the country was in the throes of a vicious civil war, it was a bold step, and one which demonstrated the bravery of each individual Garda member. This peaceful, de-escalating approach to safety is one that largely survives today.

From Reservist to Chief Superintendent

An Garda Síochána is directed and controlled by the Garda Commissioner. It’s unique among policing services internationally as a unitary body responsible for the security of the State and the provision of policing services. The two functions are united by an underpinning philosophy: the protection of the individual and the safety of communities. According to its website, An Garda Síochána is “in and of the community” and community policing “is the key to and at the core” of the ethos of the Organisation.

The Headquarters of An Garda Síochána is based in the Phoenix Park, Dublin 8. The general direction and control of the organisation is the responsibility of the Garda Commissioner who is appointed by the Government. The Commissioner is responsible to the Minister for Justice who in turn is accountable to the Government for the security and policing of the State. The Commissioner is assisted by two Deputy Commissioners and a Chief Administrative Officer.

In addition, there are a number of Assistant Commissioners in command of Regions with others who have responsibility for critical portfolios such as Garda National Crime Security & Intelligence Service, Special Crime Operations, Roads Policing & Community Engagement and Governance & Accountability.

For anyone looking to climb the ranks of the Gardaí, at the bottom rung is the Reserve Garda, then Garda, Sergeant, Inspector, and Superintendent. Next above that, the Chief Superintendent is answerable to the Assistant Commissioner. At the top of the pile stands the Garda Commissioner. Drew Harris currently occupies the role. For operational effectiveness, the Organisation is structured on a regional basis, of which there are four. The Regions are subdivided into Divisions, with each commanded by a Chief Superintendent.

Policing the Police – 100 Years Under Scrutiny

Vicky Conway’s Policing Twentieth Century Ireland: A History of An Garda Síochána is one of the most recent attempts to analyse the successes and scandals of the force. Published in 2014, Conway addresses, among other things, the problem of modern organised crime, the impact of the Donegal corruption scandals and the effect of the measures that followed the Garda Síochána Act of 2005.

Swiftly re-telling the history of the force, Conway draws on the findings of the American sociologist Peter Manning, who has described a sort of sacred zone around the Garda. The gardaí were emblematic of the new, emerging State; they have always done their duty by that State; they are for and of the people. This, Conway says, is the discourse around the Garda. But it is not the reality. She is deeply critical of its historic propensity to use force unnecessarily.

Writing on this subject in The Irish Times, Conor Brady believes that one has the sense that Conway is “bemused by – perhaps even in awe of – an organisation that is consistently rated as the most trusted institution in the country.” He notes that, “the guards enjoy greater confidence than the courts, the churches and the leading professions. They are far ahead of the news media and leave the politicians standing.”

Although people accept that “gardaí may abuse their powers,” Conway concludes, this does not “translate into a lack of confidence.” The remarkable reality is that many people sympathise with the police in facing organised crime, violent deviancy and antisocial behaviour. And there is a reluctance to condemn abuses of power that often stops just short of encouragement. On the subject of unnecessary violence, Brady argues that this kind of behaviour is hardly to be wondered at “in a society where the physical chastisement of deviancy was the norm for so long.” Corporal punishment was rampant in schools and homes. Brady asks: “Could the police in the past have been expected to act any differently?”

Something which Conway highlights is a lack of accountability. Nearly ten years later, the situation hasn’t improved much. The sponsor of the 2005 reform act, Michael McDowell, described it as the most profound legislation for policing since the establishment of the force. On this point, Conway and Brady agree: there is an illusion of reform; underneath, little enough has changed. “The Garda Ombudsman’s limited role has been circumscribed. The Garda Inspectorate is merely advisory.”

Resulting perhaps in part from the Maurice McCabe scandals, the Gardaí’s 2018 publication, Commission on the Future of Policing, posits as its 3rd principle that “Accountability and oversight structures for policing should be clear and effective.”

To that end, the Commission recommends an enhanced regular programme of engagement between An Garda Síochána and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality, with quarterly meetings. More crucially, it also recommends that GSOC should be superseded by a new independent complaints body, one with a new name, to make clear that it is not part of the force. The Independent Office of the Police Ombudsman (IOPO) is the moniker they suggest.

Diversity, Technology, and Guns?

With a view to the future, the Commission on the Future of Policing also calls for a reflection of the diversity of Irish Society within An Garda Síochána, “diverse not only in gender and ethnicity, but also in socio-economic, educational and geographical background.” They encourage applications from any and all backgrounds. And in this moment of swish new uniforms, the organisation also pledges to consider, subject to operational, health and safety requirements, alterations to the Garda uniform policy to take account of religious and ethnic requirements.

Likewise, reflecting changing times, the Commission recommends the immediate creation of a national centre for intelligence collation and analysis (Strategic Threat Analysis Centre – STAC), situated centrally within government, as well as an updated and comprehensive National Cyber Security Strategy.
The arming of the Irish police is another long-standing and divisive issue. The first Regional Support Units (RSU) were formed in 2008, to support five individual Garda regions. In 2016, amid increased gangland violence and perceived terror threats, it was decided that a sixth RSU be established in Dublin. As part of this process, they were renamed Armed Support Units (ASU). The Dublin ASU began operating with a complement of 55-60 full-time armed officers, including five sergeants.

According to the General

Secretary of the Garda Representative Association, Pat
Ennis, armed support needs
to be available in every division. He told the Irish Sunday Mirror: “One of our major worries is the level of violent incidents in rural Ireland … Gardaí are far more exposed compared to urban divisions, where back-up can arrive far quicker.”

Ennis went on to say that Gardaí have, “no desire to be tooled up or any of that macho stuff” and that they are “extremely proud of our policing-by-consent model.” But he emphasised that, whilecrime rates are falling under
many headings, Gardaí are being subject to ever more violent and life-threatening attacks. “We are seeing more incidents of armed confrontation, and vehicle-related dangers such as Gardaí being rammed, driven at and dragged along roads.”

Despite the large number of feud-related murders in 2017, a recent UN study suggests Ireland was a safer country in terms of homicides than it was at the time of the last UN report in 2013, when the rate stood at 1.1 per 100,000. Ireland’s homicide rate has fluctuated significantly over the years. In 1990, when the study first began, it was 0.5 per 100,000. The worst year was 2007 when it reached 1.8.

According to the newest data, Ireland has the 11th lowest homicide rate in Europe and the 23rd lowest in the world. It may be the case that the world might do better with less rather than more violent weapons, lest other countries go the way of the United States.

Irish Council for Civil Liberties – Recommendations into Reality

Liam Herrick, Irish Council for Civil Liberties Executive Director, believes we now stand at a “key juncture” for advancing and sustaining policing reform in Ireland.

Those reforms recommended by the Commission on the Future of Policing are now entering a critical phase, as legislation is moving forward through the Oireachtas. Meanwhile, in Northern

Ireland, the PSNI recently marked 20 years since its establishment, along with the introduction of wider policing oversight arrangements.

“With this,” Herrick writes on that organisation’s website, “comes an opportunity to reflect on past successes, current challenges, and risks for the future around human rights and policing.”

As such, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Committee on the Administration of Justice held a free seminar in Dublin on March 24th, entitled Police Reform in both Jurisdictions: Learning from the Past and Planning for the Future. This day-long event saw input from policy makers, academics, practitioners, and others with a direct involvement in police reform and oversight. Speakers included Minister for Justice Helen McEntee; Marie Anderson, Police Ombudsman NI; Bob Collins, Chair Policing Authority; Deputy Commissioner Shawna Coxon, An Garda; and Sir George Hamilton, former Chief Constable PSNI.

Looking back on the history of An Garda Síochána, there has been no small amount of law enforcement scandals in Ireland over the past century. Be it the bizarre GUBU affair, the tragic Kerry babies case, or the shadowy Sophie de Plantier murder – to name but a few – the Irish police can seem a dubious and heavy-handed organisation. But is it fair to tar all its members with the same brush? After all, for a community-focused force, an ordinary working day is often less about bodies and cover-ups, and more about safety and local concern.

With greater transparency and openness – and heeding the advice of those vigilant academics, activists and rights organisations – the Gardaí might well enjoy the trust, respect, and consent of the Irish people for many more years to come.