Cloud looms over garda debacle as all sides fail to cover themselves in glory
It's a time-honoured tradition of public discourse in Ireland that, whenever such discourse pertains to any of our major institutions of state, due respect must be paid at the outset of one's contribution to the wonderful job done by the vast majority of those providing the service, be they gardai, teachers, nurses or other public servants, and that, of course, the contributor has never had any negative experience whatever with any member of the particular profession under discussion.
Why so, and was it always, one wonders? Recently I happened to appear on the TV3 panel reviewing the day's newspapers on the morning after the publication of the Smithwick report on allegations of collusion between members of An Garda Siochana and the Provisional IRA leading to the deaths of two senior members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1989, and I found myself in a minority of one when responding in the negative to the question of the host, Anton Savage, as to whether the report's publication signified a 'bad day for the force'.
I honestly felt that the findings of the report would have come as little surprise to the citizenry at large and that the frankness of its tone would come as a refreshing change from the predictability to which we have become accustomed in investigations of this type, particularly in the context of the public's acute awareness of the impossibility of absolute integrity in any large grouping of their fellow citizens.
Perversely perhaps, I felt too that the report's publication might even have the potential for a positive outcome for the force in that it had shown itself to be open to appropriate investigation by another institution of our state and, in doing so, had validated itself and its role in our society by subjecting itself to the very system of which its members are such a fundamental component.
Recent events, unconnected in any way with Smithwick and the events giving rise to it, have thrown the relationship between the citizenry and our police force under a dark cloud, and it's a matter of great regret that, at this juncture anyway, a silver lining to that cloud is conspicuous by its absence. On the contrary, in fact, the controversy continues to lunge from negative to negative – not so much a car crash, more a motorway pile-up.
One thing is certain at this stage – there'll be few, if any, 'winners' emerging from the current debacle. On the political side, undoubtedly not the Justice Minister, nor the Government, an Taoiseach, Fine Gael, or the Labour Party either – none of them, by dint of their respective involvements to date anyway, can be said to have covered themselves in glory. On the administrative side, the same can also be said of both the Confidential Recipient and of the Garda Commissioner, indeed especially of the Garda Commissioner.
The Commissioner's evidence to a committee of the Oireachtas has been parsed and analysed sufficiently elsewhere. His use of the word 'disgusting' has rightly commanded most of the attention and the suggestion implicit in his language that the force is somehow 'his' rather than 'ours' has been well ventilated too. Even his use of the word 'force' has come in for comment, with a preference being expressed for 'service'.
Another issue arising from his contribution, which has gone relatively unnoticed, however, is that of his lack of tolerance for allegations of criminality from members of the force in relation to their colleagues.
Is it not the fact that individual gardai are in fact the very best-placed when it comes to making allegations of criminality? Is it not the primary task for which they are professionally trained and in which they have specific experience and expertise? And, in any event, who is the Garda Commissioner to decide on the viability of such accusations – is that not the function of our Director of Public Prosecutions, our courts, or indeed our Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission?
It is incontrovertible that the vast majority of our public servants are upstanding members of their professions endeavouring on a daily basis to live up to the highest standards of their respective callings; equally, however, it must be said that public confidence in all the professions would be enhanced considerably by a more forthright approach to that small proportion of delinquent members with the potential to undermine the wider integrity of their respective collectives.
Gardai, however, stand apart from their fellow public servants. Their title, 'An Garda Siochana', translated as 'Guardians of the Peace', directs us to the very roots of our democracy – we are dependent upon them for an even-handed protection from whatever danger to our democracy that may arise, and from wherever it may emanate, be it internal or external to their own noble, but imperfect, institution.