A force for good

Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell reflects on the true nature of An Garda Síochána and its unsung heroes and heroines

My great grandfather, James Kirwan, was a police man; a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary from the early 20th century until partition in 1922.

He served as sergeant in Bohola, went on to serve in Cleggan, became drill master in Dublin, and ended his career in Newry, Co. Down, holding the nick name ‘the old head’ as an echo of his long and committed career. My mother speaks of him with great and deserved pride. I speak of the Garda Síochána with the same pride.

The gardaí have been all over the public press for several years – for good and great and brutal reasons – bugging, whistle-blowing, penalty points and breathalysers. But throughout all this cacophonous chorus of approval and disapproval, recriminations justified and unjustified, belief and disbelief, we tended to forget one very simple truth. It is the garda as a servant of the State, who protects us individually and collectively every day.

We can close the newspaper, turn off the television, refuse to look, ignore or walk away – but the gardaí cannot. You are involved and have to live around the same awfulness, the same tragedy, and the same lawlessness of human behaviour. You have to see and serve human beings at their most violent and at their most tragic. You rarely see us at our best. But we insist that we see you, at yours.

Your job is an extraordinary job. It is a rose and a thorn; a great community day and a terrible national day, an hourly emotional travel between lost and lulled lives, between the silent and the strong, the bully and the beaten, between the law breaker and the law upholder, the criminal and the citizen. And it is the protection of the lawful citizen who is at the heart of what you do, especially when that citizen becomes a victim of crime, and the most vulnerable of all.

In 2014, Thomas Heinrich, a German student, was viciously and horrifically knife murdered, by Wesley Kelly, a 17-year-old drunk Dublin teenager. Thomas was the only son of Wolfgang and Alexandra Heinrich. His parents stood outside the Central Criminal Court with unmatched dignity and a future eternity of sadness. The gardaí stood with them. “The gardaí, liaison and victim support staff were exemplary,’’ said Heinrich. “We felt understood and listened to.”

The gardaí are about the fundamentals and predominance of that public interest. It is essential that we as a society, town, village, city, town land or community, work collectively and actively with you, if you are to counteract, challenge and overcome crime, and protect us.

A starting point for all of us might be in the area of communications; between the Force and the ordinary citizen. An Garda Síochána’s public communication platform can be weak. It is not heard in a good and right way. And much of the time we too are to blame, because we do not listen.  What they need to get across, what they need to answer, and what they need us to hear, can become incoherent, even though we know that their intentions are not.

Through my work I am privileged to travel around the cities, towns and the country, on a weekly basis. I have become very aware of the consistent and constant disgrace and uproar and unparalleled violence on some of the main streets on our capital city, and indeed in our larger towns. It is as though the aggressors and delinquents are in charge and continue to be in charge. I believe that we need a Metropolitan Police Force for the safety of our burgeoning and multi-ethnic capital city. We do not need to be afraid to walk on our streets, and enjoy our cities because of thuggery and violence. 

Thomas Heinrick told his parents that he liked Dublin except for one thing: the aggressive young people and children where he lived. When he saw the kids on his way home, he said he would pull up his hoodie and cross the street. One week later he was dragged into a row and his life taken in a most foul and brutal way. His parents left Ireland, feeling that the victim had no value. “We bear no ill will at all towards Ireland or the Irish,” said Mr Heinrich. “But, as a friend of Ireland for 30 years, I’m sad that its crime rate statistics don’t bode well for the future.”

I believe that punishment must begin to fit the crime. The victim and not the criminal must become central. Unless that happens the courage and heroism of every garda on and off duty, will become weak in the sight of the criminal, and totally ineffective in the sight of the public.

The courts have a huge part to play here. They should start playing it.

Marie-Louise O’Donnell in an Independent Senator and Taoiseach’s nominee

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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