News Analysis

Monday 22 September 2014

Gene Kerrigan: Politicians' outrage is real, but they must be practical

Published 27/01/2013 | 05:00

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Adrian Donohoe's death reminds us that there's more to life in this country than meeting fiscal targets, writes Gene Kerrigan

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There's no doubt that the disgust and anger expressed by government politicians is genuine. The killing of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe was shocking on every level – political, personal and community. But, on top of the genuine anger it might be expected that there's also a feeling that this was the last thing the Government needed.

It was the week in which the closing of over 130 rural garda stations continued, with protests within many local communities. It was also the week in which the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors pulled out of talks designed to cut pay and extend working hours. What the Government didn't need was this tragic reminder that there's more to life in this country than meeting fiscal "targets".

The killing of a garda can be a random thing – a consequence of the plans of some armed gang – but in the past it has echoed the state of the nation.

When the two gardai, Adrian Donohoe and Joe Ryan, got out of their car at Bellurgan to approach the four men outside the credit union, they did so in a period of relative calm. Previously, the killings of gardai occurred during periods of intense social upheaval.

The first period was during the Twenties and early Thirties, as the new State settled down. Eight gardai were killed. Sometimes it was the result of old scores that were being settled, remnants of the War of Independence and the Civil War. Sometimes gardai just got in the way of someone with a gun.

There was a further spate of garda killings in the Forties, during the wartime period. Five gardai were shot dead at a time when De Valera was cracking down on an IRA that saw the war as a chance to crank up the struggle against the British.

There was a break of almost 30 years, and then the Troubles from 1970 to 1996 led to the killing of a dozen gardai.

Almost 17 years of peace have followed. Despite the flourishing of the drug and hold-up gangs, the two gardai arrived at Bellurgan at a time when they would possibly have thought it inappropriate to come waving guns. Unfortunately, the men gathered there with the intention of robbing the credit union decided to shoot at the first sign of opposition.

Genuine though the expressions of shock and anger undoubtedly are, the responses to the killing have been predictable. The Taoiseach condemned "an outrageous act of cold-blooded violence" and others offered similar sentiments. Such expressions of anger are deeply felt, inevitable and not terribly helpful.

There are two ways in which this killing might be seen. It may be a one-off, quickly followed by hammer blows against any armed gangs – whether political or not – who might have been involved. The killing reached right into the heart of the land, given Det Gda Donohoe's GAA activities, and the nature of the robbery that was under way. It will be felt wherever there are credit unions and GAA clubs – which is to say, in every community up and down the country. The fact that a father has been taken from two young children – and the pain inflicted on those kids – will rouse the anger of all parents. In short, there will be widespread support for whatever action follows.

The other possibility is that this is the first of a series of such murders, with garda killings every year or two or three years, which is what happened during previous periods of instability.

Gangs with quasi-political motives may become more active, or drug gangs may seek to protect their shares of a declining market. Either or both will need to raise money (to buy guns, to keep followers loyal, to support the families of those jailed). That means more armed robberies, with similar ruthlessness. Against the State, in this era, they won't have a snowball's chance. But there will be blood, as such outfits seek to exert their will in a society in which there won't be a shortage of young men with few prospects, a feeling of righteous anger and little to lose.

It's to be hoped that this is a one-off. In which case what might have been an instinctive lashing out, when the police were spotted, will result in a devastating backlash.

Either way, in the short term, the Government will be aware that this couldn't have happened at a worse time. As rural garda stations close, people feel more vulnerable – whatever statistics are thrown at them. And politicians will be reminded again and again that the people of whom they are demanding sacrifices may well be the people who will make sacrifices of a far more terrible kind.

It will be harder to bully gardai, for whom the sense of risk has been ratcheted up, into taking a pay cut. And therefore difficult to demand similar sacrifices from other frontline services.

The pain will be most strongly felt at a family level, for those around the two gardai, and among the force. And the local community. But, considering the wider implications, politicians might be expected to wonder if this is indeed a one-off. Or if it might be a signifier of the worst kind of social upheaval.

Sunday Independent

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