Gene Kerrigan

Friday 1 August 2014

Roma debacle shows failure to police Gardai

All of society has a question to answer after an episode disgraces us on the world stage, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 27/10/2013|01:55

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Gardai were believed to be acting on concerns about the little boy's appearance
Gardai were believed to be acting on concerns about the little boy's appearance

Look at the state of us. We started the week with a whoop. We'd found not one but two blond children who had been stolen by those dreadful gypsies. Oh, we still had to go through the formalities, but the people who know about these things were signalling that we had the gypsies by the short and curlies.

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We ended the week being accused across the world of being excitable fools at best, or ham-fisted racists at worst. To understand what the Guards got up to last week, and how such a rotten thing could happen, we have to understand the wider culture.

Not to worry, though. Inquiries are under way. Later, at worst, we'll maybe pass it off as a failure of communication. The controversy of the Guards and the Roma children will vanish down the memory hole. That's how we do things in this country.

One thing above all others distinguishes a police force from the rest of us. When there's trouble, we move away from it and they move towards it. We rightly equip them with the powers necessary to enforce the laws we pass. It is right, for instance, that they have the power, without going through due process, to remove a child from what they know to be immediate and serious danger.

It is equally important that police powers are used scrupulously, in accordance with law. This requires that Police actions are examined by the courts, by the politicians and by the media and that the police be shown to be accountable. You may use this severe law, we tell them, but only under strict conditions.

How do we explain well-intentioned guards, going to houses where no crime has been committed, and taking away helpless, terrified children? This is not about some imagined failure within individual police officers, but a culture that has failed to thoroughly police the police, and reducing the threshold over which their powers can be used.

Back in the Seventies, if a garda formed an opinion that you were involved with certain crimes, you could be arrested under Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act. If that opinion, its existence and the basis on which it was arrived at, was not scrupulously examined, the garda's power was limitless. And, by and by, arrests under Section 30 soared.

Heavy handed policing of certain areas is now the norm. You can stop young people, intimidate them, search them aggressively and yet entirely legally, and do so with impunity. It doesn't happen in the areas where mummy and daddy might unleash a heavyweight lawyer – but on certain housing estates perfectly good citizens, guilty of no crime, find themselves alienated not just from the police but from the society that allows this to happen.

Since the Seventies, there has been a string of controversies, all rooted in this lack of principle – we're the good guys, and whatever we do is what should be done. The Guards didn't invent this viewpoint.

It was encouraged by politicians, and by significant sections of the media who have always had a crush on the cops. They see themselves as honorary crime fighters, aping the lingo and the attitudes.

Last weekend, someone made an allegation on a TV3 Facebook page, about a little girl, blonde and blue-eyed, living with dark-haired parents. It was an openly racist comment, claiming the Roma steal kids "to get child benefit". TV3 passed this to the police.

There was no crime. There was no evidence that there might have been. Nothing had happened. All that existed was a racist comment on a Facebook page – wholly inaccurate.

The family wasn't going anywhere. There was no rush. The Facebook remark might have been dismissed for the racism it was, but there was also an option to ask around – quietly check things out. Instead, the police went to the house (and did the same later, with the family in Athlone). They did so without any evidence of a crime – because there was no crime. Once they did that, the family was faced with having to prove their innocence.

Someone tipped off sundayworld.com, which splashed with a "world exclusive". The website and TV3 argued about who deserved credit for breaking what was a non-story, oblivious to the fact that gardai had blundered into two innocent households and two children were reefed away from their families and psychologically brutalised.

Like the young people on certain estates, immigrants are too often treated as outsiders. No one says this openly, but these days we have the undergrowth of social media to show us in real time the twisted logic of the racism that infects this society and led to the "tip-off" on TV 3.

It wasn't pretty, last week.

It's hard – since there was no crime, since the families had nothing to hide – to see how the police had a reasonable belief that the children were in serious and imminent danger.

By the way, has anyone apologised to the Roma people for the fear and disrespect inflicted on them?

Sunday Independent

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