We need to talk about the Gardaí.

Political compliance and media silence on scandals redolent of police state. By Tom Hanahoe, Terence Conway and John Monaghan.

Between May 2007 and November 2009, 111 complaints about alleged Garda violence and intimidation were submitted to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission – established in 2005 and invested with more public hope than legislative power – by campaigners opposing Shell’s Corrib Gas Project in Kilcommon Parish in north west Mayo. Not one of the accused gardaí was disciplined. Gardaí often seem to be above the law. Unaccountable.

The history of An Garda Síochána is a long litany of violence against citizens, of indiscipline, insubordination and ineptitude, corruption and illegality, of ill-treating detainees, botched investigations and much more – wrongdoing revealed by tribunals of inquiry culminating in the extraordinary findings of the Morris Tribunal whose recommendations still blow in the wind, in court trials and in debacles like the latest one that brought down the Minister for Justice.

The right to dissent peacefully is a cornerstone of democracy. Nevertheless, since the foundation of the Irish state, police violence has been routinely used to suppress protest movements – most notably protests by the most marginalised in society.

In September 1922, the infant State experienced its first labour dispute. Striking postal workers were attacked by Gardaí and soldiers. A female striker in Dublin was shot at, but had a lucky escape when the bullet was deflected by a suspender buckle. In August 1934, gardaí opened fire on protesting farmers in Cork City, killing a 15-year old boy and wounding several men. In February 1938, during protests by striking dockers in Ballina, Co Mayo, men were knocked unconscious by baton blows to their heads. In the 1950s, unemployed protesters were physically attacked by police. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, protests against the eviction of tenants and homeless squatters were crushed by baton-swinging Gardaí. Protesting students received similar treatment. In May 1978, men, women and children were knocked to the ground while resisting attempts to dump asbestos waste at a site in Ringaskiddy in Cork, near two national schools.

In March a UN Special Rapporteur called for a investigation of the human-rights of Protestors against the Corrib Gas field in Mayo. More recently, a 32,400-word report ‘An Garda Síochána: An analysis of a police force unfit for purpose’ was compiled by the authors of this article, outlining in considerable detail some of the history of Garda violence and wrongdoing. Especially examined is Garda behaviour in Kilcommon, transformed into a mini police-state, to stifle opposition to Shell’s proposed gas project.

Twenty-seven copies of this report were sent to print and broadcast news media. Enclosed with the report was a letter – signed by nine Kilcommon activists (including three of the Rossport 5) – which made three demands:-

• That an independent inquiry be held into Garda behaviour in Kilcommon
• That this be part of a wider inquiry into Garda behaviour in other counties
• That an unpublished internal Garda inquiry into Garda behaviour in Donegal – the Carty Report – be published.

One would think that the 32,400-word report and the accompanying demands were worthy of coverage in the news media. However, the response to the 27 copies of the report sent to the media was remarkable. Only one media outlet bothered contacting the authors – Village magazine. The authors are unaware of any reference at all being made to the report in any other print or broadcast media.

Separately, a few months ago, 57 groups and individuals – including AFRI, Fr Peter McVerry, former UN assistant secretary general Denis Halliday, politicians, campaigners and academics – signed a letter calling for a public inquiry into policing in Kilcommon. This letter also received scant media publicity. Why? Where is this resistance to media scrutiny of Garda wrongdoing – especially in Kilcommon – coming from? Hardly from journalists – some of whom signed the letter. Though national editors are a different matter. Whose interests does this media censorship serve? States where police can act with impunity and where media engage in censorship are called police states.

It is time that the Irish police are themselves properly policed – held accountable for any wrongdoing. And it is time that the national news media played its part in doing this.

The Morris, Smithwick and Barr tribunals investigated Garda behaviour in three counties. The findings were shocking:- gardaí in Donegal attempted to stitch up numerous innocent people for crimes they had not committed, including murder; someone in Dundalk Garda station colluded with the Provisional IRA in the murder of two RUC officers; gross Garda incompetence resulted in the shooting to death of mentally fragile 27-year old John Carthy in Abbeylara, Co. Longford.

The widest-ranging independent inquiries into Garda behaviour throughout the State must be instigated, though history suggests this is unlikely and the mind boggles at what might emerge. •