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The gardai losing 'one of their own' may be a rare event, but in many ways that makes it all the more traumatic

Liam Collins


Rise of criminal gangs has increased threat posed to thin blue line, writes Liam Collins

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United front in face of terror: Members of An Garda Síochána arrive at the Hub in Castlerea for a memorial service for Det Garda Colm Horkan. Picture: Frank McGrath

United front in face of terror: Members of An Garda Síochána arrive at the Hub in Castlerea for a memorial service for Det Garda Colm Horkan. Picture: Frank McGrath

United front in face of terror: Members of An Garda Síochána arrive at the Hub in Castlerea for a memorial service for Det Garda Colm Horkan. Picture: Frank McGrath

You have only to look at the ashen faces among the serried ranks of solemn gardaí at the funeral of a fallen comrade to see the tragic effect it has on the force.

Losing "one of their own" may be a rare event, but in many ways that makes it all the more traumatic. Their response has always been to present a united front in the face of death and terror.

Ireland's largely unarmed police force has been successful by becoming embedded in the community in Castlerea, Co Roscommon, and other rural towns throughout the country. It has maintained law-and-order through the bitter divisions of the Civil War and more recently The Troubles.

The first Garda Commissioner, Michael Staines, said in 1922 it would prevail not by strength of numbers or force of arms "but by the moral authority of the people".

Today, almost a century later, his predication has stood the test of time.

Only three members of the Garda died during 1922/1923 when the country was convulsed by the Civil War. The first to die on active duty in its aftermath was Patrick O'Halloran, shot dead in a criminal bank robbery in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, in 1924.

Until Wednesday night the most recent death was that of Garda Tony Golden, attending a domestic dispute in Omeath, Co Louth, in 2015.

In the intervening 70 years, paramilitary leaders and gang bosses behind organised crime were smart enough or ruthless enough to know shooting a member of An Garda Síochána was taboo.

Public support almost totally evaporates; there is no grey area between right and wrong when it comes to pulling the trigger on an unarmed garda.

Of course there were also renegades and exceptions. In the grounds of Dublin Castle there is a fitting memorial to those who have died in the service of the state.

Sadly a new name will be added to the list, bringing to 89 the number of gardaí killed in the line of duty since the foundation of the state.

"In spite of organisational shortcomings and cyclical crises the Garda Síochána has at least until now retained a particular place in the Irish communal psyche," wrote Conor Brady in his book 'The Guarding of Ireland 1960-2014'.

Not everybody may like the gardaí but the vast majority respect them, believing they have a job to do and do it with courage and responsibility.

"Members of the force were known in their localities and the communities in which they served like them," observed former minister for justice Des O'Malley in his memoir 'Conduct Unbecoming'.

What also makes the Garda unique is that it is one unified, almost unarmed force, led by the commissioner. It is responsible not just for policing but for the security of the State and intelligence gathering. Whether its organisational structure is suitable for today is a question that is often debated, but remains unanswered.

Internally, members of An Garda Síochána are more like a family than many other groups in Irish society.

They train together in Templemore, Co Tipperary, they help each other through the vagaries of domestic life, and often socialise and play sport together.

It has been their strength and sometimes their weakness. The bonds that make them strong have in times of crisis convulsed the force with wrong-doing covered up in the interests of preserving the organisation.

That said, there is still a high degree of trust in the gardaí among the general public.

The rise of criminal gangs, particularly those in the drugs trade, has presented a new set of challenges never envisioned by those who founded An Garda Síochána. There are such vast amounts of money at stake in the heroin, cocaine and cannabis trade that the value of life is of little or no consequence, with enemies and gang members dispensed with a casual bullet to the head.

Yet while hundreds of mostly petty criminals have died in gang wars and feuds in recent years as drug over-lords battled for supremacy, the gardaí have remained relatively unscathed. But inner-city policing has changed and the threat to their lives is now ever-present.

Society has also changed radically in the last couple of decades. Ireland has become a more urbanised country and often the gardaí who once policed the communities in which they lived, have been forced by property prices to live far from their stations.

They drive into work, do their job and go home - but they no longer have the rapport with local people that often provided the much needed intelligence that kept them "ahead of the game".

The shooting of Detective Garda Colm Horkan on Wednesday night is a stark reminder of the fragility of life for those on the thin blue line of duty.

Irish Independent