Diarmaid Ferriter: Times may have changed, but respect for the gardai hasn't
Published 30/01/2013 | 05:00
EXACTLY 91 years ago, in January 1922, Michael Staines, a pro-Treaty Dublin TD, was appointed acting chairman of the Police Organising Committee. Established to plan the formation of a police force for the new state, the committee prepared a blueprint for the setting up of a 'Civic Guard' and, in March 1922, Staines was appointed its commissioner. He began laying the foundation stones for the new force (subsequently in 1923 to become known as the Garda Siochana), but his appointment of several former Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officers to senior positions created resentment and dissent from IRA elements who had joined, which became a mutiny in May 1922.
Staines lost control and was forced to flee police headquarters in Kildare, leaving it in the hands of mutineers at a time when civil war seemed imminent.
He regained command in mid-July, but only when the mutineers were promised an inquiry, and he never recovered effective authority. He relinquished his post in September, doing so on the basis that, as a TD, he was following a recommendation by the inquiry that the police should be divorced from politics.
Staine's experience and the environment that existed then is a reminder of the exceptionally difficult circumstances in which the new police force was born. But before he left his post, Staines made a very important prediction that was ultimately vindicated: "the Civic Guard will succeed not by force of arms, or numbers, but on their moral authority as servants of the people".
The importance that was attached to the idea of separating policing from politics and conflict was also reflected in the decision that the new force would be unarmed at a time when Irish society was still heavily militarised, unsettled and violent.
It was a courageous decision and, in the long run, was one factor in helping the force to win the respect and allegiance of both sides of the civil war divide. Even those republicans who refused to accept its legitimacy rarely set out to kill members of the force, and a generally even-handed approach to those breaking the law ensured that the gardai did not alienate large sections of Irish society.
The challenges of the 1920s and 1930s were immense, and did include a number of armed attacks by the anti-Treaty IRA. But with greater political stability the situation improved for policing, and it became a force that accommodated the political divide and thus acted as a healing agent while also becoming an important symbol of the independence of the new state.
There have been controversies at various stages of the force's existence about pay and conditions, the failure by politicians to match their praise for the force with sufficient resources (and, at present, another round of this kind of battle is being played out), the cutting of corners and compromising of integrity by a tiny minority of the force, and about whether all gardai should be armed (detectives and specialist units within the force have been armed at different stages due to the nature of their work).
But there was always a general consensus that an attack on the gardai, or the murder of one of its ranks, was a crime against all; the force was seen, and is still seen, as one of the state's success stories and a mirror image of the broad values of the society it serves. Murderous intent against its members is seen as an attack on a civilian force that, against considerable odds, has commanded the allegiance of virtually all sections of society.
As the state funeral of Detective Adrian Donohue will demonstrate today, these are occasions of solemn remembrance, respect and collective grief and anger because of what the gardai represent, but also because these events are rare.
Between 1922 and 1942, 16 gardai were killed in the line of duty. No member of the Garda Siochana was killed while policing between 1942 and 1970. From 1970 to last weekend, 15 have died while policing. The first one was Richard Fallon, killed while trying to stop a bank robbery in 1970. The last one to be shot, before the killing at the weekend, was Det Garda Jerry McCabe, who was killed during an attempted raid on a post office in Limerick in June 1996.
There is no doubt that the challenges of policing and the nature of crime have changed substantially since the foundation of the force. The resumption of paramilitary killing from 1969 onwards, the emergence of organised crime and the increased tendency of criminals to use firearms during robberies are indicators of that change; nine of the 15 gardai killed between 1970 and last weekend were killed as a result of bank, post office or credit union robberies.
One thing that has remained constant, however, is the force's high standing among the public, its revulsion at the murder of a garda and the solemnity and gravity with which these tragedies are treated.
Some of the words of the architects of the force still resonate today, including those of its commissioner, Eoin O'Duffy, who replaced Staines in 1922. He said, in 1923, that he wanted the gardai to promise they would not let down the force or the public "by abandonment of your post at the behest of any armed coward".
Ninety years on, Detective Adrian Donohoe has paid the ultimate price for keeping that promise.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD