Garda strike marks turning point for force - but cool heads are needed
Before embarking on their infamous Blue Flu action, which resulted in rank-and-file members of the Garda reporting sick, the membership of the Garda Representative Association (GRA) agreed to allow certain personnel to work to deal with emergencies.
These included a group of anti-terrorist officers from the Emergency Response Unit who were involved in a special operation.
At the time, the leadership of the GRA were not aware of the details, but accepted assurances from the authorities about its urgency.
The significance of that decision became clear on the afternoon of May 1, 1998, hours after the Blue Flu took effect, when the anti-terrorist officers foiled an attempt by the Real IRA to hold up a Securicor van, near Ashford, Co Wicklow, as it was carrying more than €250,000 back to Dublin.
During the operation a Real IRA activist, Ronan Mac Lochlainn, was shot dead by gardaí after, an inquest was later told, he pointed a gun at a detective sergeant.
That incident underlined a number of relevant points including the highly dangerous nature of the duties performed on a regular basis by some sections of the force and the importance of ensuring that sufficient numbers are left on duty if the rank and file implement their proposal to strike.
The threat from dissident terrorists remains, but is now matched by the spillover from the Kinahan-Hutch gang feud.
Senior garda officers told the Policing Authority on Thursday that a dozen murders have been prevented by disruptive action taken by special units since the Regency hotel shooting last February. And there is also the live possibility that other crime gangs will attempt to take advantage of the absence of garda patrols.
Add in the risks posed by reducing the number of immigration officers at key ports and it all points to a large exemption of members being sought.
Whether the GRA will be in the mood to countenance such an exemption is debatable, given the stance they took earlier this week, although they did agree to cover emergencies.
The Blue Flu focused minds in 1998 and a deal was quickly hammered out to settle that dispute. But this time the problem is more complex. Its pointless pointing the finger of blame at Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who has been implementing Government policy, or Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan, who has no direct role in this dispute.
This is a dilemma for the entire Government, rather than individuals, as whatever settlement deal is reached has the potential for huge knock-on effects across the public sector.
It also marks a turning point as a full-blown strike will end the garda claim of being unique because they are denied the right to take industrial action unlike most other public sector workers.
Down the road, a ruling from the European social committee three years ago will mean that the associations will have access to the Workplace Relations Commission.
It's too early yet to be formalising contingency plans for a strike as the GRA has yet to spell out its definition of "emergency duties" while the AGSI is taking a second look at its position. The focus within Justice remains on how to settle the row through negotiations.
It appears the presentation last weekend of proposals worked out at talks between the GRA and the Department of Justice as a done deal spooked the association's membership.
As opposition grew rapidly in the ranks of the GRA, the association's leadership met in Tullamore where one of the emergency motions suggested the current negotiation team should be stood down and replaced.
The level of internal criticism was a key factor in the outcome where the leadership, which is without the experience of wise old heads, such as the recently retired general secretary PJ Stone, opted to press the nuclear button of fixing dates for a strike. At the moment, the two sides seem far apart.
But as the full import of what is being planned is considered calmly, as well as the damage that could be inflicted to public confidence in the garda force, it is inevitable that they will return in the short term to the negotiating table.