Heroic history can't be lost in Garda pay row
My father was the first Deputy Commissioner of An Garda Síochána and, as he died when I was 12, I do not remember very much about him. But one statement of his abides with me. He used to say that the setting-up of a trusted, unarmed, police force in the middle of the Civil War was the new state's finest achievement.
I think he was probably right. But I also think that if he could see the state of the force today he would turn in his grave.
I am not merely talking about the strike threats. Of course the young gardaí's case is unanswerable and without breaching the Lansdowne Road Agreement, or whatever, some imaginative kicking of the can down the road could settle that issue.
If the old age pensioners could be told to wait until next year for their miserable €5, the young cops can wait a little for their rise also; and I hope when (not if) it comes that they will do considerably better than the pensioners.
But the state of the gardaí calls for more than a pay rise. We need full-blown reorganisation and reform on the lines stemming from the Patten Commission in the Six Counties. To judge from the way gardaí vanished from our streets in the wake of the financial crash, policing would appear to have depended not on pay, but overtime.
For me, there was an all too appropriate symbolism about the recent appearance of Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan and a full entourage before a Dáil committee. The team who accompanied Nóirín looked big enough, and numerous enough, to take on the All Blacks.
But who in fact were they taking on? They were appearing before a Dáil committee on justice and equality - legislators of this State, charged by us the people, with ensuring that the words justice and equality have a real meaning in the force.
Gardaí and the committee should have a collegiate role in the maintenance of their respective functions, not the 'them and us' adversarial relationship so vividly conveyed by the Dáil tableaux.
We all know, or think we know, how bad the crime situation is. We can see drug trading openly in the centre of Dublin. Throughout the country, old people living alone, live lives of fear. And, within my lifetime, since the year I began work with the 'Evening Press'(1954), murder rates have escalated from two a year to their present heights (or depths) in the gangland era.
We are told that these trends are a global phenomenon. But we have also seen some very Irish factors at work here - Moyross was allowed to get out of hand, and some of the most vicious gangs in Europe flourished before the crackdown came.
Currently, also in Limerick, we appear to have history repeating itself in Rathkeale. Here, many of the local population are being bought out. Across the sea, the Traveller network known as the 'Rathkeale Rovers' was recently sentenced in England for, amongst other things, a multi-million pound involvement in the selling of Rhinoceros horns.
Claims are made that, in certain categories, crime is actually down and we get reassuring PR campaigns such as having nice young gardaí on the television explaining that the way to keep burglars out is to keep your front door locked.
However, bad as our crime scene obviously is, it is probably far worse than we think. The Central Statistics Office has recently come out with the chilling revelation that some 17pc of the crime figures are not registered at all.
And how could it be otherwise? Again thinking back to my father, I was reminded the other day of how I once stood alongside him on Killiney Hill, looking toward the Dublin mountains. I stood there with a great grandchild, conscious of the fact that behind me Dalkey Garda Station had closed and all the other garda stations between us and the Three Rock mountains were either closed or partially so.
Yet, since the time I stood on the hill with my father, the area has become hugely built-up. More people, but fewer gardaí. Bad for the public, bad for the Garda, which also has to deal with poor equipment and a government retirement policy which has removed from the force some of its best and most experienced officers.
As Michael Collins used to say, the new men cannot step into the shoes of the departed and their knowledge.
Morale in the force is understandably at rock bottom. Again, how could it be otherwise?
We don't have to rehearse the phone-tapping and penalty-points scandals, we know what Judge Morris had to say about the appalling garda behaviour he found in Donegal, but neither can we be certain that this behaviour is confined to Donegal.
Where civilian control is concerned, we have the dismaying sight of virtual turf wars between gardaí, the Inspectorate and GSOC.
All this has a historical backdrop.
The force, through no fault of its own, was affected by the Civil War.
The Free State looked to gardaí and they to the Government, to safeguard each other.
Their opponents in the 1920s, led by de Valera, vilified the force. When de Valera came to power, Commissioners fell and de Valera sent signals such as, in Kerry, choosing to cross the road to shake hands with an IRA welcoming party while ignoring one uniformed garda.
Promotion continued to be very much a matter of party allegiance. Then in the early 60s, just as today, young gardaí rebelled against government failure to give them a rise. They met in the Macushla ballroom in Dublin, while outside senior Garda officers noted their names.
Out of that meeting, and the subsequent sacking of 11 gardaí, grew today's GRA and the steely camaraderie with which gardaí now support each other and their demands.
They needed steel. People chuckled when they learned what Minister for Education Donogh O'Malley replied to Garda Travers, who had asked him did he not see the arrows before driving the wrong way up O'Connell Street?: "I'm so drunk I couldn't see the f***ing Indians."
But there was no chuckling when O'Malley's friend, the Minister for Justice Charles J Haughey, had Garda Travers hounded out of the force.
It is time now to learn from these incidents. The current Garda dispute should be settled around good lines and the Government should set up a commission with a Patten-like brief to re-constitute the force.
Tim Pat Coogan's 'The Twelve Apostles: Michael Collins, the Squad and Ireland's Fight for Freedom', has just been published by Head of Zeus