As a spotlight shines on the Gardaí for their role in evictions across Ireland, Barney Doherty sheds light on the roots of the force’s corruption, explaining the extent of the scandals.
‘Who do you protect, who do you serve?’ was one of the chants raised by housing activists lining North Frederick Street last September as Gardaí from the Public Order Unit donned balaclavas and brandished batons in defence of a private security firm violently ending the latest political occupation by the Take Back the City movement.
Questions were raised again about the Gardaí’s actions, or lack thereof, at the recent Roscommon eviction. Again a private security firm violently attack members of the public during an eviction, as Gardaí watched on. For those present at these state enforced eviction, or indeed other sites of Garda violence, including the Shell to Sea protests, the student protests of 2010, and local water protests, the role of the police is quite clear. Protection and service was not being provided to the peaceful protestors, but in the interests of the rich and powerful.
The violence of the Gardaí pales in comparison to that of the police in France or the United States, who are much quicker to resort to force when facing internal dissent. The ‘common sense’ understanding of the Gardaí is that they simply uphold the law, prevent crime, and generally serve community. The political establishment and mainstream media go to great lengths to legitimise this view. But time and again, the actions of the Gardaí disrupt this. All too frequent corruption scandals emerge which break the facade.
When compounded, the scale of corruption that has come to light in recent decades is staggering.
Since the 1970s there has been a steady stream of allegations of malpractice and corruption against the Gardaí. As more autonomy was given to the force during the Troubles in response to the growth of paramilitarism, the Gardaí developed a culture of impunity and secrecy. More extreme methods of ‘law enforcement’ became justified in their eyes and forced confessions and false Garda testimonies became frequent.
A group of Gardaí known as the Heavy Gang would obtain confessions throughout the 1970s by pressuring, assaulting and threatening suspects. In 1977 alone, Amnesty International reported 28 cases of ill-treatment of prisoners by Gardaí, ranging from pushing and shoving to severe beatings. Food and water deprivation was also used.
Names associated to the Heavy Gang would appear in cases around the country as they were dispatched from Dublin to secure confessions in ‘serious crime investigations’. Those targeted ranged from republican activists, such as members of the IRSP in the 1976 Sallins train robbery, to a woman and her family in the 1984 Kerry Babies scandal. In both cases the ‘suspects’ were beaten and coerced by Gardaí to sign false confessions that fit the force’s story.
The Morris Tribunal, which investigated the operations of the Donegal Garda Síochána, uncovered incredible levels of corruption and criminality stemming from the 1990s. Garda officers were discovered to have attempted to frame Frank McBrearty Jnr and his cousin Mark McConnell for a murder, which was more likely a hit and run incident involving a member of the force. In 1996 the guards committed an arson attack and planted an explosive device on a telecommunications mast in Ardara. The mast had become a point of protest for the local community and the Gardaí wished to use the attacks to carry out arrests on community leaders. Similarly, in 1998 a shotgun was planted by Gardaí to arrest seven members of the Traveller community.
The Tribunal also included reports which showed how Gardaí conspired together to acquit the guilty officers, but none were charged. Several officers were allowed to retire with pensions and only three were fired.
The force’s ability to close ranks and defend themselves is blatantly on show during the most recent of Garda scandals – the Maurice McCabe case. It began in 2006 when McCabe resigned from his role as sergeant-in-charge of a station in Cavan. He had raised several issues during his time as sergeant but finally resigned after Gardaí pressured an assault victim to withdraw charges, rather than investigate.
After lodging his complaints, McCabe was removed from the PULSE system and visited at his home by two senior Gardaí. From this point on, McCabe was the focus of an orchestrated top-down harassment campaign. False child sexual abuse claims were lodged with TULSA, the Child and Family Agency. The same claims were then used to pressure prominent politicians and journalists to ignore McCabe and his allegations.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of Garda corruption scandals. And while the cases may differ in content, the reaction from the establishment is almost always the same. The first step is denial. Next, is excusing the scandal as the work of a ‘few bad apples’, and finally a scapegoat is forced to retire or be fired.
The excuse of rouge members, though, holds no water. The Morris tribunal and the McCabe case show very clearly that the impetus came from above. Senior figures in the Gardaí are both implicated in rampant corruption and then defended by the government of the day. While bad apples are offered up for sacrifice, the rotten barrel is left untouched. The corruption of the Gardaí is systemic, so to offer a legitimate criticism of corruption then we must understand the historical role and nature of the police in Ireland.
A Brief History
Modern police forces emerged over a few decades, between 1820 and 1850. Ireland was one of the earliest and its occupying police force would be used as a blueprint for colonial forces in India, Canada and Africa, as well as the urban London Metropolitan. Its success stemmed from its ability to answer new problems facing the British Empire.
Rural Ireland proved troublesome for Britain as bursts of agrarian outrage and rebellions made the management of the colony difficult. Secret societies were very successfully agitating among their communities, often under the nose of the army. The uprisings in 1798 and 1803 would underline the need for a more hands-on approach to maintenance and management of the colony. The solution came from Home Secretary Robert Peel who established the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Conor Brady, author of Guardians of the Peace: The Irish Police, described the RIC as having
“…not only symbolised, but made meaningful with their very presence, the control which Britain had exercised over Ireland and the Irish people. The constabulary had represented the Dublin Castle administration in a host of manner, mainly quite unconnected with police work. They had a hand in the regulation of virtually every aspect of life in rural Ireland. No farmer, shopkeeper or tradesman could hide anything from the Peelers for it was their duty to know everything about everyone. They were the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle and where necessary they were its strong right hand.”
Colonial Irish society had deep contradictions between the workers and peasants and the capitalists, landlords and imperialists. The RIC was established to uphold the class and colonial system, quickly proving their usefulness by helping suppress the Fenian risings of 1848 and 1867.
By the mid 19th century there was new threat for the status quo. One not based in the rural areas but in the newly industrialised cities. Like other ruling classes, the British establishment had to adapt to deal with a highly concentrated and growing working class, as people moved to cities in search of work in the docks, workyards and factories. Capitalists found themselves in cities where they held the wealth and capital while being vastly outnumbered by the workers who lived in slum and poverty conditions. Their answer in Dublin was the Dublin Metropolitan Police. The DMP shared the same role as the other new urban police forces emerging, to patrol working class areas, uphold property rights and manage crowds (including the management of agitators).
It was not long until the DMP became the ‘most bitter enemy of the Dublin working class’ as they helped to uphold these shaky class relations. In 1913 when 300 employers locked-out 20,000 workers over union organising, the DMP choose their side. At a rally addressed by James Larkin, the police baton charged the crowd. Leading to skirmishes throughout the centre of Dublin and killing at least three people.
Revolution and Counter-Revolution
During the War of Independence there was a genuine revolutionary moment. Workers were organised, militant and fighting for a new society. However, it was not Connolly’s Workers Republic that won out, instead the self-professed ‘most conservative revolutionaries’ claimed victory.
A counter-revolution was waged by Cumann na nGaedheal which fought to beat back the revolutionary ideas that emerged. To this end, they build a strong state linked to the Catholic Church, and they needed a strong police force to ensure this victory. A new Civic Guard was formed by Michael Collins, Kevin O’Higgins and Ernest Blythe with high ranking ex-RIC officers who provided professional police advice. The structure remained the same and so did the general role. The new Civic Guard, or Garda Síochána, were not managing colonialism but they were managing Irish capitalism and the class relations it demanded, only now they were unarmed.
The new Irish ruling class knew revolution was possible, they had seen it. So, the role of suppressing subversive organisations, patrolling working class areas, upholding property relations and managing crowds remained a necessity in the Free State and the primary role of the police force for the following decades. Eoin O’Duffy, Garda Commissioner in the early years of the service, was so committed to this goal that he would later become the leader of the fascist Blueshirts, when he feared the success of the counter-revolution was to be lost to a new Fianna Fail government.
Role of the Police today
The reason that corruption in the Gardaí will be blamed on individuals in today’s society, is that the establishment wishes to be presented as a neutral force, without interests or opinions. The political and media establishment put a great deal of effort into presenting the institution as such. By ‘neutral’ they mean independent of politics and social class interests – simply enforce the law and serve the state and people as a whole.
As an understanding of the role of police though, this has significant contradictions. There is no common interest of ‘the people as a whole’, instead there are competing classes whose interests are not just different but opposed, as the short history of polices forces in Ireland proves. From 1913 to North Frederick Street, it is clear whose side the police are on, as Trotsky wrote in 1932, “the worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.”
It’s never the millionaire developers, the slum landlords or corrupt politicians facing baton charges. The law defends the rights of private property and so defends those who have it. As the law favours the establishment and the rich then so, the Gardaí who enforce the law also enforce the interests of the establishment and the rich. This also means that the establishment have an interest in defending the Gardaí in times of crisis. When corruption appears, as it has done so often in Ireland, their job is to cover it up.
Corruption in the Gardaí is tied to its position and role in society. The force cannot be reformed to represent anything other than the establishment. They are not potential allies while in uniform, while they represent the state over protesters, or abusers over victims. Just look at Maurice McCabe to see what can happen should they try. A strategy for combating Gardaí abuses and corruption must be tied to a strategy of ending the system that demands a force to uphold its internal inequalities above all else – namely capitalism.
Internationally, anti-corruption has become a talking point of right wing politics. It is something which has been taken up to great success by those on the right, such a Gemma O’Doherty, whose other views are downright dangerous. The Left has a duty to take seriously and offer its own explanations for corruption, not simply because of its roots in the capitalist system, but because if we don’t, the right will do it to their advantage.