Why we put this pamphlet together: Secrets, lies and unaccountable policing


It really does not take a lot of effort to come across anecdotal evidence of insensitive and sometimes brutal policing in working class areas in Ireland.  As residents, community workers and educators in a wide variety of settings we have both personally experienced Garda violence and have heard countless negative stories about the gardaí.  These stories cover a wide range of issues. Most consistently people, usually but not exclusively young men, complain of insults, intimidation on the street and of physical violence during arrest and in custody.  The violence they describe is of varying degrees of seriousness and routinely involves minor assault (e.g. slaps, kidney punches and limb twisting etc) but more serious violence can and does occur (1).

To add insult to injury, the gardaí will then pre-emptively charge people with assault after beating them up.  In cases of violence against minors, we have heard convincing stories of parents being allowed to pick up their children only after signing a statement to the effect that no harm was done to them while in Garda custody. We have also repeatedly been told that the gardaí indiscriminately use drugs laws to stop and search people and  arbitrarily use public order legislation to charge people they have decided for one reason or another need to be ‘taught a lesson’.  The dismal similarity and frequency of people’s accounts of mistreatment can lead you to only one conclusion-that something is rotten with policing in Ireland. 

Similarly, as activists involved in ecological, anti-war, anti-capitalist and social justice movements we have come across innumerable stories of Garda misconduct.  We all know, again through personal experience, that harassment, surveillance, intimidation, trumped up charges and beatings are a part, albeit a small part, of being an activist in Ireland. The police riot at Reclaim the Streets on Dame Street in 2002 or the violence directed at residents and supporters in Rossport are simply the most visible part of what in the case of any other institution would be called a culture of violence.

We think the disparity between what gets said in private and what gets said in public about the gardaí deserves serious consideration.  However, it is impossible to know just how widespread this sort of policing is across the country (2). One thing which can be said about the gardaí in particular is that - unlike a number of other European countries - there have been no whistleblowers, even among the large number of those who have left the force. It is not clear whether this is because individual acts of violence and intimidation are accepted by other officers, or because those who dissent fear the kind of reprisals that “civilians” who challenge police abuse routinely experience.

What is clear, and what is significant, is that these abuses of power in working class communities and against activists remain largely invisible. Perhaps this invisibility should not come as a surprise in a country so burdened with secrets and lies. After all we know that that we live in a State in which a whole world of experience - of poverty, institutional violence and disrespect - has remained largely hidden for decades. We know that powerful people have the ability to impose silence on ordinary people and we know that uncomfortable truths can remain hidden for decades.

It is in that spirit that this editorial collective came together to examine the role of the gardaí in the shadows of the Republic. In particular, we want to spark debate and discussion about who gets targeted by the police and why.  We want to break the silence about Garda brutality and misconduct and to create space for people to tell their stories in their own words.  We also want to understand how the silence about the gardaí is maintained, be it through coercion, ignorance or shared illusions.  Above all we want to identify resources and realistic strategies for making the police accountable through grassroots activity.
It is important to stress however that this pamphlet is not interested in making simplistic arguments or claiming that all police are malicious and doltish. They are not. Cartoon accounts of ‘goodies and baddies’ serves no-one, least of all those who are interested in social justice and equality. On the other hand neither do we think that abuses of power are simply the work of a few ‘bad apples’: they are too systematic, too similar and too unchallenged for this to be believed. The point is to begin to trace in an accurate way how power and policing function in Ireland and why.

This pamphlet is a modest attempt to open up a public conversation about these issues. Of course it has many gaps. There are many other examples of abusive policing that could be added to the stories in this collection. In particular, we are missing material about the policing of strikes and labour disputes, republicans, travellers, migrants and the LGBT community: if this pamphlet makes it into a second edition, we hope to plug some of these gaps. We are also aware of our failure to address another major part of the story – the development of state repression, including the diminuition of public rights of assembly and protest through legislation such as successive Criminal Justice and other Acts. Another are of inquiry missing from this piece which we would hope to return to is that of future directions of policing towards privatisation, militarisation and internationalisation. We also hoped to talk to gardaí about their perspective on crime, punishment and power but unfortunately this also proved impossible.

Social class and policing
For us the disparity between the public and the private conversations on policing in Irish society reflects broader social inequalities in power and wealth. Firstly, the gardaí are a powerful, influential and well established group in Irish society and their activities have rarely been scrutinised (until 2007 the only body tasked with investigating any allegations of abuse was the Garda Síochána itself) (3). As in previous generations with challenges to priestly power, those who raise questions about Garda behaviour meet with aggressive responses by those who feel that the gardaí should be above any public accountability. In particular, many well-off people and people from rural communities evidently see the gardaí as serving their interests against those of working-class urban people and political activists. Media willingness to accept Garda accounts of events confirms this sense that all respectable people should line up behind the police - and that it is inconceivable that the police should ever behave badly.

Secondly, and most importantly, the people who are most likely to experience police brutality, coercion and intimidation are young working class men. This affects what gets reported, not only because such young men lack the resources and influence to kick up a stink about Garda misconduct but also because the media is by and large far more attuned to the social experiences, needs and sensitivities of the middle class.  Furthermore, from the point of view of the young men who end up dealing with the police on the streets or in cells, it is simply common sense that complaining about the gardaí may cause more trouble for them in the future. They also know that in most official and judicial processes they are less likely to be believed than the gardaí. 

Thirdly, and this is less widely discussed  than the other two issues, within working class communities people typically find themselves in a bind with regard to policing, which means that some issues regarding the behaviour of the police are often not tackled in public. On one hand people know only too well about the cost and impact of crime and the numerous social problems caused by deprivation and inequality.  Most people have had to deal with the consequences of this on a regular basis while trying to get on with life in an honest and decent manner. They also know how complex these issues are on the ground and understand that the police often have a difficult job.  But they have also found that the police are often not there when they need them, and that serious social problems are ignored and overlooked.   To make matters worse this general absence of policing is often punctuated by aggressive barracks-style policing in which gardaí, who often culturally share little in common with the people they police, chose to treat all locals as potentially disorderly and criminal. To further complicate things, living in places which are often seen by outsiders simply as ‘problem’ areas makes any discussion of policing in a working class area a loaded issue. People quite rightly resent their communities being represented in the dull monochrome of journalistic clichés which treat working class areas as hotbeds of crime, drugs and anti-social behaviour. Understandably this leads to a wariness about anything that would contribute to making a place seem less respectable including tackling police misconduct.

All these issues – a lived experience of crime and social problems; sensitivity about how an area is perceived from the outside; long periods of lax policing  followed by bursts of aggressive policing- combine to make crime and punishment a very sensitive and potentially divisive issue in working class areas. Ultimately, this fosters a real ambivalence about how to deal with the gardaí and how to negotiate the questions of brutality and accountability.

Political policing
The working class is not the only group to be on the receiving end of prejudiced policing. Stigmatised minority groups such as Travellers, asylum seekers, refugees and Roma can often be at the sharp end of police activity, as can such groups as punks, ravers and new age travellers.

While all these groups share in a somewhat ‘marginal’ social position, groups which are in no way marginal can also end up bearing the brunt of police tactics also. For example, when the white-collar workers at Thomas Cook in Dublin decided to protect their jobs by occupying their offices in August 2009, 150 gardaí removed and arrested them in an early morning raid on the occupied offices: here a respectable group passed over into the realms of ‘unrespectable’ or ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. A similar, and much stronger, example of this is provided by the policing of Erris, a traditional rural community which would normally by unproblematic in terms of policing, which now lives under something close to Garda occupation, where there are often more gardaí than residents,  due to the community’s opposition to a dangerous gas pipeline and refinery.

In both of these cases, the gardaí appear to have been operating as the bully boys or armed wing of the capitalist class, operating either to protect the projects of individual capitalist companies or the more general forms of operation or discipline of capitalist society. In relation to the Thomas Cook strikers, this is of course only one example of a long line of strikes where the gardaí intervened on the side of the bosses: regrettably this is an issue that has been neglected by labour historians (4).  The Erris example is a more intense and long-term involvement by gardaí in the imposition of locally unwanted land uses on recalcitrant communities, which had been preceded by Garda assistance in the erection of telemasts and the dumping of asbestos waste (5).

These examples bring us to the second major type of policing this pamphlet examines, protest policing or political policing. Here we again come across similar problems to those mentioned above regarding the policing of the working class. Political groups which are on the receiving end of police harassment and interest are normally marginal ones, and those that aren't are easily portrayed as being led astray by 'outside agitators' and troublemakers of various kinds. The issue of political policing is complicated in the Republic by the ‘shadow of the gunmen’, the existence since the foundation of the state of an armed military and political organisation which refused to accept the 26 Counties as a legitimate state. While there have been occasional scares about communists or revolting workers, the main concern of the political police over the entire life of the state has been the Republican movement. This is an issue that we don't address in this pamphlet, partly because none of us working on this pamphlet are republicans, partly because it is an exceptional issue requiring its own analysis, and partly because such analysis of political policing in the Republic as has been carried out has centred on state treatment of republicans. Still, many of the tactics that the gardaí have used in response to the republican movement are carried over into their policing of other political conflicts. The general trend appear to be towards a worrying over-policing of protest and a diminuition of the right to protest based on a view that sees most protest as ‘subversive’.  Anti-republicanism is convenient to the Irish establishment in much the same way as anti-communism was to the US establishment; the mere allegation that republicans are involved in a movement is enough to smear it in the eyes of many and to legitimate almost any behaviour on the part of police.

Overview of this pamphlet
The pamphlet is structured in the following way. Following this introduction and a piece on the making of the gardaí, the pamphlet is divided into three sections, the first of which looks at the experience of the policed. We begin with an account of the experiences of working class men and youths, who are considered to be guilty until proven innocent, with garda harassment and disrespect. This is followed by discussion of the experiences of the family of Terence Wheelock, a young man from inner-city Dublin who died under mysterious circumstances in Store Street garda station. The final piece in the first section details the removal of a prisoner's rights without explanation on Garda say-so. The next section looks at the policing of protest by the gardaí, beginning with an activist’s account of the attentions of the Special Branch (the political police) coupled with a personal account of how the garda and military occupation of northwest Mayo to protect Shell's right to Irish natural resources has attacked a traditional rural community and an overview of police responses to opposition to US military use of Shannon. These accounts are followed by two more analytical pieces, the first of which is an examination of the way the gardaí attempt to redefine protests as violent, and when they do (and don't) get away with it. This section ends with a broad overview of protest policing in the Republic from the 1960s to date.

The final section looks at responses to policing and examines how grassroots activists and movements have attempted to make the police more accountable. It begins with two personal experiences: one of challenging the gardaí through the available machinery of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission, and one by a victim of the police attacks on Dame Street at Reclaim the Streets in May 2002, detailing their attempts to obtain justice through the courts. These are followed by two accounts of organised responses, one by the Prisoners' Rights Organisation in Dublin in the 1970s and 1980s and another by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, which brings a welcome perspective from abroad to the pamphlet. The section finishes with a survey of different methods of putting manners on the police. The pamphlet ends with a list of resources and information sources for those interested in the issue of policing.

The articles printed below involve a wide range of approaches, varying from people recounting their personal experiences to more analytical and ‘academic articles’. Some articles – such as that on the PRO - involve the recovery of a hidden history of organising on issues of police power and abuse in the Republic; others outline ways in which police powers are being abused in contemporary Ireland.  Taken together these articles tell an untold story  from a country in which it is almost impossible to bring the gardaí to court with any hope of an positive outcome and where critical media scrutiny of the gardaí is extremely rare.

In the nature of things, the aggressive and ‘dirty tricks’ response by gardaí to critical observation, and the barracks culture which has prevented whistleblowing even by past members of the force, makes it difficult to ascertain facts in the way which becomes possible for other professions when they are the subject of serious legal, journalistic, academic and activist scrutiny. Nonetheless every effort has been made to be as accurate as possible, to double check facts and to avoid exaggeration, which serves nobody.

In conclusion
We are well aware that we have only scratched the surface of this topic. There obviously is a need for a more comprehensive and more developed analysis of the history and practice of policing – of both political protest and 'ordinary decent criminals' - in the Republic. This will need to address not only examples of Irish ‘exceptionalism’ - for instance how the the Republican movement was policed - but also the ways in which the Irish experience tallies with the international experience of policing.  We see this pamphlet as being the first step along the road to the development of such an analysis.

When we began this project we had a variety of questions we wanted to answer: what is the difference between political policing and ‘ordinary, everyday policing? What are the connections between the gardaí and the Irish state and at what levels are decisions on policing made? Is it possible to extricate the useful aspects of policing – ‘keeping the peace’ responding to domestic violence, etc. - from the more general disciplinary role of the police in a capitalist society? Just how different is ‘community policing’ from state or private policing? What separates community self-policing from vigilantism and who decides who is a vigilante?

It quickly became obvious to us however that much basic work on policing in the Republic needed to be done before we could even think about addressing these questions, as the lack of analysis of policing in the Republic was stunning. Thus we scaled back our ambitions and this pamphlet is the result: a mixture of accounts and analyses of various experiences and types of policing in the Republic, which, with all its gaps, represents a first step towards a more general account and analysis. As such this pamphlet is an invitation to others to respond to this collection - to criticise, discuss and analyse its contents as part of a broader effort to understand Irish policing.

WORDS: Garda Research Institute

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Leave us a comment or share your experiences


1. We have personally come across several accounts of very serious assault and injuries during arrest and in custody. In preparing the publication we were told about at least half a dozen cases some of which damaged people psychologically. It should also be noted here have been 28 deaths in police custody over the past decade: see http://www.tribune.ie/article/2010/jul/18/twenty-eight-deaths-in-garda-c.... There have been several cases such as the deaths of Brian Rossiter, Terence Wheelock and John Moloney which have given rise to serious concerns about violence in custody.
2. One of the few indications, which may or may not be representative, is that over 2000 complaints a year have been logged with the Garda Ombudsman since it was established in 2007. Surveys completed on behalf of the same body found 1 in 20 people have had reason to complain about the gardaí. It should be borne in mind that research suggests that young working class men are less likely to make complaints (see paper by B. Moss at the Sociological Association of Ireland Postgraduate Conference, 2009). A poll in the Irish Times published on February 10th 2004 discovered that 37% percent of people do not have confidence in the Garda.
Another indication is the level of payouts by gardaí to their victims, which has become so systematic as to substitute for court cases. The system also represents a tacit recognition that Garda victims can expect no justice from the courts. In 2007, for example, the force paid €14.7 million in compensation (see http://www.tribune.ie/archive/article/2008/sep/07/garda-wrongdoing-costs...). 2007 was a particularly “bad” year in that the Donegal corruption case was being processed, but as far as can be ascertained compensation payments have always run to at least several million euro annually through the first decade of the 21st century. In the second half of 2009 and the whole of 2010, payments linked to garda misbehaviour or negligence alone totalled €7.7m (http://www.tribune.ie/news/home-news/article/2010/dec/05/state-pays-4200...).  Cases included 18 garda assaults in 2009 alone, 6 cases of abuse of garda powers (in some cases relating to misuse of the Pulse computer system), as well as other payments for defamation, negligence, nervous shock, miscarriage of justice and malicious prosecution.
3. Unsurprisingly they rarely discovered problems with the way policing functions. The Garda Ombudsman, modelled partly on reforms in the north of Ireland to the PSNI but with much more limited powers, was created in 2007 as a supposedly independent oversight and complaints body.
4. For example the first 25 issues of the Irish Labour History Society journal Saothar (http://irishlabour.com/?page_id=205), while containing two articles on Dublin police in the 19th century, (one on working conditions, another on the 1882 police strike), have no coverage of the policing of labour disputes in the Republic.
5. This example also brings up another issue we don’t touch on - who decides what is a crime? After all, long term exposure to a fatal poison if it occurred on an individual basis - say a wife administering cyanide to a husband in his food over a long period - would be criminal, yet exposure of communities to toxic chemicals and highly hazardous processes isn’t considered a crime. Impoverishing communities to the extent where deaths by heroin are a routine part of most families’ experience is not criminal; even minor thefts by those living in such communities is (and until recently could leave minors incarcerated in industrial schools and subject to violence sanctioned by state and church).

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