What’s the difference between Maynooth and Templemore? What’s the difference in structure between an Garda Síochána and the Roman Catholic church?
The answer is – surprisingly little.
The training of Irish clerics and Irish police has followed a broadly similar path throughout the 20th century and the early decades of the 21st. So has the management of the two organisations, and as a consequence, both organisations have failed to move with the times, while those at the top are resistant to criticism and those on the front line showed a distinct enthusiasm for abusing their power.
Trainee police are fed certain propositions that they are required to believe and implement, of which more later, but the comparison doesn’t stop there. The Catholic church was in the habit of hammering home its message by keeping the faithful in constant fear and occasionally by conducting a minor crusade against some perceived vice or transgression, however frivolous and unjustified that campaign might be, and the Gardai do precisely the same thing. More of that later too.
It’s all about power, not fairness.
What’s more, and while we all agree that the majority of priests and policemen are decent, honest people, there is a significant number of nasty abusive types in their ranks, people happy to use the power of their uniform for personal gain or gratification. But just as the Catholic church had its Ryan and Murphy rinquiries, so an Garda Síochána had its Morris Tribunal, and all three reports found that the rottenness permeated the entire organisation, though a culture of cover-up and a reluctance on the part of senior management to face up to the truth.
But how could bishops or Garda commissioners face up to a truth that they themselves had experienced at first hand in their formative years? The bishops went through the same seminaries as the abusing priests, and the senior Garda officers went through the same training school as their crooked colleagues. Abusive men managed to become instructors. Bishops and commissioners alike served under such men, and they were required to avert their eyes even though they knew full well that abuse was taking place. Nobody wants to be a Serpico when they have a mortgage to pay and a family to raise. Or in the case of priests, a housekeeper you might have become very fond of. How would the cultureof silence not become deeply ingrained?
The problem is obvious: single-tier entry. In most successful organisations, bright, talented people are recruited straight into positions of authority, but not in the church and not in the Gardai, although things have started to change there. For generations, the Irish police were all inducted at a young age and all went through the same formation and indoctrination process, again rooted in the 1930s and geared towards producing a 1930s authoritarian plod, even though the times had moved on. There was no recruitment of qualified people from outside. No professional management techniques were employed in running the force. Front-line police were engaged in stamping forms at desks, just as they do today.
I know somebody who worked in IT, and part of his job was to maintain computer systems in Garda stations. Even though he had an official pass, he made a point of not using it. Instead, he’d walk up to the desk, point at the door and wave his briefcase. They always let him in without checking his identity.
He got friendly with the Gardai, as always happens when people work together, and sometimes they’d ask him to fix their personal computers. When he took the machines home, he’d find private confidential police files on Irish citizens, casually downloaded from the police computer system and stored on the same laptops that the cops’ children might later be using to browse the internet. Security? None. He found a complete lack of professionalism in every way, from slackness in managing the door security to failure to protect the data.
I suppose part of the reason why cynicism evolves in any hierarchical organisation, whether church or police force, is the knowledge that in order to succeed you must toe the party line or else become a maverick and do as you please without getting caught. Being a maverick might mean that you feel you have no hope of recognition, or it might mean that you were always in it for personal gain, and you’re quite happy to remain at the bottom, taking whatever you can.
But for those who think they can rise through the ranks, there are certain formulae that must be repeated, even if they don’t believe a word of it, and so it was for young parish priests as much as for young sergeants. Admittedly, we don’t have any young parish priests these days, but all the same, let’s extend the comparison. Back in the 1930s, a new parish priest might decide to impress the bishop by stamping out public dancing and other lewd practices, or he might call to every house and demand daily attendance at Mass. It was nonsense. He didn’t believe in any of it himself, but it got him noticed by the bishop, and even if he didn’t get a promotion, at least he’d be safe from undue scrutiny.
Oddly enough, the very same dynamic is at work today in the Garda Síochána.
I know it sounds like an anachronism from the 1930s, and so it is, but when senior officers meet up for strategic discussion, someone always trots out this mantra. Control the pubs and you control the streets. Anyone who dares to disagree is shouted down, and I know this from a very well-placed source indeed. It’s a meaningless cliché that might have had some value 70 years ago but today makes no sense at all. Nevertheless, every time some new, recently-shaving lad makes Sergeant, he feels the need to send his minions out raiding the pubs to make sure they obey the closing hours.
I’m told that a new lad with peach-fuzz on his cheeks has won his stripes in our local station and is trying to stake his claim as top dog on the streets. How? By trying to intimidate grown adults. By alienating the very people whose goodwill our police force needs in an era far removed from the 1930s, an era when the police are in real danger. An era when they need the support of the middle ground.
What are they doing instead? Just like the priests, by being utterly stupid, they’re losing the faithful. People will not be bullied.
Unless Sergeant Peach-Fuzz s a total idiot, he must know that this activity has no value whatever. Therefore, I can only conclude that the young lad has made a very cynical calculation indeed. His career is worth more than the goodwill of the general population.
It’s time for a Reformation.
Elsewhere: Cap’n Purplehead