Two tragic deaths of women following interaction with the police prove the battle against the darker side of men is one worth fighting — and winning
Aileen Malone, the mother of the late journalist Dara Quigley, received a significant letter in the post last week. Four years after Dara died by suicide, came a formal apology in writing from Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, expressing his sincere regret for the police misconduct that likely contributed to her death.
In spring 2017 Dara was 36 and struggling with long-term mental health and substance-abuse problems. She had been referred to an in-patient centre for treatment but her admission had been delayed.
Following an acute deterioration in her condition, she was arrested on Dublin’s Harcourt Street where she had been found walking naked and in a “distressed state”.
The incident was recorded on Garda CCTV. After Dara was released from custody, the footage was leaked by an unnamed officer online.
Initially circulated on a WhatsApp group it made its way to Facebook where it was shared more than 100,000 times. A few days later Quigley’s body was recovered from Lough Derg.
Her death and the destructive subculture within the police it exposed became a tipping point in recent Irish social history. Before then, the issue of sexism and human rights abuses within the male-dominated institution of An Garda Síochána were part of a panoply of public affairs problems that never quite made it to top priority.
We knew from previous scandals and occasional first-hand accounts such as that of former garda Majella Moynihan how the institution had historically harboured a culture that was often misogynistic and sometimes openly hostile to women.
But the death of Dara Quigley threw into sharp relief the human cost of complacency on this issue.
The simple unfairness of it was blistering — a young woman in a state of such extreme vulnerability had been utterly exposed and exploited, for sport.
Meanwhile, the garda responsible for the leak of the video remains anonymous to this day. It’s of some comfort he is no longer in his post — he resigned before disciplinary action was taken against him.
But the personal cost he has paid for the part he played in the tragedy seems comparably small.
For anyone disposed to dismiss such expressions of toxic masculinity as lighthearted laddishness or ‘fun for the boys’ here was the proof of just how much harm these could cause.
Though the details of the cases themselves are incomparable, there are in more general terms some parallels between what happened in Ireland in 2017 and reckoning now playing out in Britain following the abduction and murder in London of Sarah Everard. In that case a serving police officer used his warrant card to lure her into his car.
Both prompt the same question. If misogyny within the police is an institutional problem then how can they credibly be seen as part of the solution to the problem of gender-based violence? Both cases represent a damaging erosion of trust.
In Ireland, under the stewardship of Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and his progressive female deputy Shawna Coxon, there has undoubtedly been significant and meaningful progress made since 2017.
In 2018, following the publication of the Future of Policing in Ireland report a game-changing reform programme was launched, with greater respect of human rights at the very centre of its goals. So far implementation of the programme appears to be more or less on track. There are reasons to be hopeful that what happened to Dara Quigley will never be allowed to happen again.
There is still a long way to go, however, and more to be done before women in Ireland can feel confident An Garda Síochána are true allies in the fight against gender-based violence.
Further damage has been inflicted by more recent scandals such as the thousands of 999 calls related to domestic violence that went unanswered and ignored during the pandemic.
Reports published in summer revealed at least 12 serving gardaí have barring orders against them related to domestic violence inquiries. It’s believed there could be hundreds more who have domestic violence complaints filed against them. According to latest reports, none of the 12 mentioned has been disciplined.
Better representation of women in higher-ranking posts and among sworn members of the Garda would help. Women currently make up just 27.5pc of the force.
Research from the National Centre for Women and Policing in the US shows the benefits of having a greater proportion of female officers include more community-orientated policing and an improved response to violence against women.
“An increased female presence reduces sex discrimination and harassment and brings about beneficial changes in policy,” a paper published by the Women’s Council of Ireland has noted.
There’s long been an assumption that misogyny automatically flourishes in male-dominated environments such as the military and the police.
Refreshingly, Commissioner Harris seems to believe it doesn’t have to be that way.
It bears mentioning how the police remain one of the few public institutions where traditionally masculine traits such as physical strength, risk-taking, codes of honour and stoicism have a real and meaningful social value, and can potentially find their most positive expression.
So long as they are not undermined by the remaining small but stubborn strand of toxic masculinity within.