Garda union leader Antoinette Cunningham tells Paul Williams how she smashed the glass ceiling
As a lone woman in a traditionally male-dominated world, Antoinette Cunningham probably holds the national record for smashing through a succession of glass ceilings and rising through the ranks to one of the top jobs in Garda trade unionism.
She officially broke the final gender barrier earlier this month when, following an independent external selection process, she emerged as the best candidate for the job of general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) - the first woman to hold the position in its 43-year history.
On her way to achieving that career-defining milestone, Ms Cunningham also achieved four other records for equality, having been the first woman to serve at every executive level of the union.
However, her journey was not without controversy or serious challenges, particularly when she was allegedly subjected to sexist bullying and intimidation from within the ranks of the AGSI. This is currently the subject of an internal investigation ordered by the Garda Commissioner.
And in 2016 she was in the front line of the contentious industrial dispute which saw rank-and-file and middle management gardaí going to the brink of all-out strike action over pay and conditions.
In the build-up to the confrontation with the government, she emerged as a sharp, formidable negotiator who won kudos for the way she handled media interviews, calmly - and convincingly - articulating the reasons why her normally conservative, non-militant membership felt they had no choice but to down tools for the first time in the history of the force.
Her impressive performance in the public eye caught the attention of the Fianna Fáil leadership who invited her to run as a Dáil candidate in the recent general election. While flattered, she says she politely declined.
But it is not a subject she wants to discuss in any detail.
"I have been flattered to be offered a number of opportunities outside An Garda Síochána, including politics, but my loyalty and commitment is to the organisation and my colleagues."
Ms Cunningham had never considered getting involved in the business of advocating on behalf of colleagues until a distressing episode in her own life and career changed her direction.
Ultimately, the move into union politics was the result of the "overwhelming, debilitating grief" that consumed her following the sudden death of her beloved father.
Specifically it was the lack of empathy she received from Garda management when she found she couldn't cope with the added demands of her job at the same time, and was forced to take extended sick leave on doctor's advice.
She reveals: "My dad Maurice died suddenly at the age of 67 just after I was promoted to sergeant and was transferred to the Garda College, where I worked as an instructor.
"Up to that point in my career I had an impeccable work record and had never taken extended leave apart from giving birth to my son.
"I was very close to my dad and I found myself completely overwhelmed with grief - I never understood what grief was like until that happened.
"My mother and his six daughters were the centre of his world and he was an amazing family man - he was blessed among women. Dad worked hard all his life and had a great sense of justice, particularly regarding the rights of workers, which he passed onto me.
"But when I took sick leave I found myself being constantly pressurised and bombarded with phone calls ordering me to return to work.
"It was that very bad experience that convinced me to get involved in garda representation because I didn't want anyone else to suffer the same indignities I had endured and was determined to advocate for the rights of colleagues experiencing similar problems.
"The grief and stress I experienced brought it home to me that, underneath our uniforms, we are still ordinary human beings, citizens in uniforms, with the same range of emotions and stresses, and should be allowed the time, space and understanding like everyone else."
When she joined the Garda in 1991 the native of Knocklong, Co Limerick, broke with the family tradition of nursing - her mother and three of her five sisters are nurses. The bulk of the first 17 years as a uniformed garda were served at Roxboro Road and Mayorstone Park garda stations in Limerick city at a time it was engulfed in bloody gang wars.
"I broke with tradition at home because I wanted to be a guard since childhood and in 2008 I was privileged to be promoted to the rank of sergeant and transferred to Templemore. Apart from the few bad experiences, I have loved every minute of my time in the force," she says.
The AGSI boss demonstrated her ambition over the following 10 years by working her way up the academic ladder to qualify as a teacher/instructor at every level in the Garda College. She holds a BA in training and education, and an MA in adult learning and development in addition to other academic and training qualifications.
Ms Cunningham is one of the primary architects of the new postgraduate diploma in proceeds of crime and assets identification, which is the product of collaboration between the Garda College, the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) and the School of Law at the University of Limerick. The course is due to begin later this year.
When asked about her role in the industrial relations crisis in 2016, which threatened to undermine the relationship between the public and gardaí, she admits to just one regret.
"The only regret, and it is a huge regret, is that at the time vulnerable people were afraid that the gardaí would go on strike - and to think that even one person would feel like that doesn't rest easy with me.
"The pathway to the brink had been a long road of failed discussions with the government on the rights of our members to have access to the industrial relations mechanism of the State so we could resolve outstanding issues around pay and conditions in the same way as every other worker in the public service.
"My goal when I took the post of AGSI president was to equalise the industrial relations rights of my members and, together with the great team of people on the national executive, we developed a strategic plan which we followed all the way through.
"I had no fears during that tense time because I was absolutely convinced of the legitimacy of our claim, which had the unanimous support of the national executive and 2,500 members.
"By their nature you have to remember, the middle-ranking officers are less militant and more conservative than other garda colleagues and being prepared to step across that line was not taken lightly, especially considering their loyalty to the public."
The strike action was eventually abandoned at the 11th hour when the Labour Court intervened and the government was forced into a climb-down.
Meanwhile, the internal investigation of Ms Cunningham's allegations of bullying and intimidation is expected to be concluded soon. The report will be then be forwarded to Commissioner Drew Harris to consider what, if any, actions should be taken.
"I can't comment on the specific investigation as it is still ongoing and the only thing that I will say is that it had a profoundly negative effect on me as a person but I am very grateful for the support from my family, friends and colleagues. The experience has made me stronger."
One of her goals as general secretary is to encourage more women to get involved in the garda representative associations.
"When I joined the Garda, women were a very small proportion of the organisation but today they account for a third of all gardaí and I hope my appointment will encourage them to get involved in representation because women bring a different perspective.
"When I was informed that I had been appointed to general secretary it was one of the proudest days in my life.
"I am very humbled that I have been considered competent to take on a hugely important role on behalf of my colleagues - my only regret is that my dad was not here to see it."