Is it fair to blame the Gardai for failing to prevent the two recent gang murders in Dublin?
There was a time when I would have said Yes, but that was then and this is now. The fact is that the Gardai are very much a product of Irish society and let’s be honest with ourselves about this: we Irish tend to take a rather ad-hoc, bumbling, see-how-it-goes approach to things. If you don’t believe me, just look at our health service.
Compared to many police forces, the Guards continue to retain the confidence of the public at large, a public that in many ways tends to enjoy their occasional displays of amateurism and provincialism, such as the recent ludicrous prosecution of a Kerry publican for doing very little. It’s true, they can be infuriating and they can be ignorant. Some of them are overbearing, some are looking out for every extra penny they can scrape and some are just downright thugs. But most are ordinary-enough individuals once you get past the monastic sense of being a closed cabal that was instilled in them during their time at Templemore. The Guards will be all right once we eradicate the word Member from their vocabulary.
It could be worse. Some years back, before a trip to Latvia, I was warned not to approach any policeman on any account, because he would use it as an excuse to arrest me and shake me down for money. When the Czech Republic joined the European Union, Irish people assigned to Prague were astonished by the blatant venality of the local cops. You don’t get in the way of a French riot policeman, because if you do, he will break your skull open just for being there in front of him. You don’t, under any circumstances, make an unusual gesture to an American cop, in case he shoots you dead.
Our cops, for the most part, are not like that, and even when they are, it’s in a bumbling, ham-fisted, ticket-fixing kind of way.
On the other hand, they’re very good indeed at sniffing out information thanks to their grounding in local communities, a skill that served them well in the early days of the State, and later when the Troubles were at their height. Nothing moved without the guards knowing about it, which is why they were far more effective against the Provos than their colleagues in the RUC who had no roots in the communities they were policing.
But the guards are essentially a middle-class organisation in a very Irish sort of way. I recently had to visit a police station to get my passport renewal signed and the young Guard I spoke to barely glanced at me or at the photos I presented to him, because it was obvious to anyone that we were of the same tribe. I wasn’t what the Guards call a gouger. I didn’t speak like one, I didn’t dress like one and I didn’t have the body language of one. We shared a few words about Paul O Connell’s retirement from rugby. He asked if I needed the passport for a match and I said Maybe, if I can find the money.
We laughed in the polite way that strangers do and he said Have a nice day.
You too, I told him.
I was clearly a person who only encounters a policeman if I’ve been driving too fast, if I’ve been robbed or if I need a passport form stamped. Somebody just like his own family and friends.
I was of his tribe.
A friend of mine used to work for a company that maintained the IT equipment in Garda stations. He was the quintessential Tech Guy, and he made it a point of honour when visiting a station never to explain who he was or why he was there. Instead, he simply waved his toolbox at the policeman or woman at the desk, pointed to the security door and he was always buzzed through without a challenge.
Because he was clearly of their tribe.
Because that’s Ireland and that’s what makes us so flexible.
Unfortunately, however, it’s also our weakness now that we’re dealing with a class of criminal that has nothing at all in common with the people from whom our police force springs. These gangs are not the middle-class rural Provisionals of the 70s. They didn’t grow up next to the family of the cop who’s watching them. Many came from the bleak urban wastelands ordained by the blinkered housing policies first enunciated in the 1930s. They came from estates and blocks of flats that no policeman ever lived in. They sprang from a nihilistic ethos, a sterile vision, a place devoid of soul. Something far worse than a ghetto.
Of course, this is not to damn everyone who came from the areas where the criminals grew up. Most people are decent enough and just want to get on with their lives. In the case of Christy Kinahan, one of the major protagonists in the latest feud, his family were all high achievers, well-respected, well-read people, some of whom went on to achieve prominence in public life. Including, paradoxically, Christy Kinahan himself.
But even though this gang leader might well be a cultured, if ruthless, man he still comes from St Teresa’s Gardens, a place where no policeman grew up. Ever.
And that’s where Garda intelligence is failing: a junkie will tell you anything you want to hear as long as you pay him. The Gardai need good people on the ground and that means living among the people.
I’m not saying there’s a simple answer to this problem, but unless we make a start, there will be no progress and incidents like the Regency Hotel attack will continue to occur. It’s bigger than a policing issue. It’s a societal issue and sadly there seems to be little understanding among politicians that we live in a fractured society where many people feel no loyalty at all to our little republic.
How do we fix it? I genuinely don’t know, but I do know this: we need to start changing the deeply unequal society that Ireland is in 2016, a full century after the Rising. We as a society need to confront those criminals who might as well be foreign terrorists attacking us, but then we need to tackle the reasons for their existence.