Should any police force really be above reproach? Kieran Allen takes stock of Fionnán Sheahan’s impassioned defence of the Gardaí.
Last week Fionnán Sheahan, the Irish Independent columnist, lost the rag in a television debate with Adam Doyle, the artist known as Spicebag, who created a parody of Garda behaviour during evictions. Sheahan claimed that Spicebag was a ‘politically motivated’ artist who showed insufficient respect for the Gardaí.
This is a familiar line of attack. Opponents of the status quo are deemed to be ‘politically motivated’ while their accusers claim a position of ‘objectivity’. A moment’s thought would show otherwise, because Sheahan is a politically motivated journalist.
This is not an insult but simply a statement of fact. He recently denounced a People Before Profit pamphlet as ‘fantastically deluded, but also profoundly insulting to the Gardaí and the Defence Forces’. Claiming that a political party is ‘fantastically deluded’ is clearly a politically motivated statement. Just as much as Spicebag’s picture.
Sheahan often calls for ‘respect’ for the Gardaí. Serious criticism of the force is deemed to be beyond the pale of conventional politics and as a mainstream journalist, Sheahan acts as the gatekeeper who defines what is proper and what is ‘delusional’.
Why Shouldn’t We Criticise Police?
Police forces all over the world are subject to criticisms. In 1997, for example, the British government established an inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The subsequent MacPherson report claimed that the Metropolitan police was permeated by ‘institutionalised racism’.
A more recent report by Baroness Louise Casey went even further and claimed that Scotland Yard was institutionally racist, misogynist and homophobic.
Irish state reports into the Gardaí have never dared to come to such general conclusions. But one report, from the Morris Tribunal of 2008, deserves some attention. It showed that Donegal Gardaí had engaged in false arrests and mistreatment of suspects. They had planted explosives on suspects, had shown detainees disturbing autopsy photographs, and had subjected them to sensory deprivation through the switching on and off of lights in interview rooms. However, its key finding was that there was a ‘blue wall of silence’. In other words, the Gardaí covered up for each other.
This official report condemned Garda behaviour in far more serious terms that Sheahan’s ‘politically motivated’ artist. So why would a long-standing journalist take such umbrage at a painting?
State Repression in Ireland
Here we must look at the role of mainstream journalism in Ireland and how it interacts with the repressive element of the Irish state.
Historically, the Southern Irish state has been under a state of emergency for decades. The Offences against the State Act of 1939 allowed for the creation of non-jury Special Criminal Courts. Suspects could be detained for up to seven days and later convicted on the word of a Garda superintendent. During the armed conflict in Northern Ireland, Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act was invoked to prevent Sinn Féin members speaking on national television.
All of this was justified in the name of ‘combatting subversion’. Official Ireland believed that there was a subterrain level of support for the IRA and this had to be suppressed both to protect the Southern state and to shore up the Northern state.
One result of this extremely repressive regime was that it spilled over into how the police dealt with civil society. In the 1970s, a ‘heavy gang’ was created inside the Gardaí to beat confessions out of people. In one notorious Sallins case, members of the IRSP were beaten so badly that they signed confessions for a robbery they did not commit. The same methods were used to extract confessions from the Hayes family during the Kerry babies case.
The state campaign against ‘subversion’ fed into a police culture of how the Gardaí treated people from different class backgrounds. Working class youth that had the misfortune to be arrested were often given a beating in Garda stations. Legendary Garda figures like Lugs Brannigan even boasted about their rough justice’ methods. In 2005, Terence Wheelock died in police custody in highly suspicious circumstances. Gardaí claim he died by suicide, but there has been no independent investigation into his death, despite a long running campaign by his family and friends.
Kid Gloves for the Powerful
By contrast, respectable people, such as priests, were treated with kid gloves. The 2005 Ferns Report looked into allegations of clerical sexual abuse and revealed that complaints of sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy made to the Gardaí as recently as 1988 did not appear to have been recorded in any Garda file and were not investigated in an appropriate manner.
In the majority of these cases mainstream Irish journalism – with honourable exceptions like Gene Kerrigan – stayed silent on police abuse of power. They felt that it was their duty to stand with the forces of law and order in their battle against subversion. Even if that sometimes spilled over to wider civil rights abuses.
We, therefore, have an extremely paradoxical situation. A British Baroness can denounce her own police force as racist, misogynist and homophobic. But when an artist in Ireland paints a ‘subversive’ picture, the former editor of the Irish Independent goes berserk.
It tells you more about politically motivated journalists than artists.