Garda rights come dripping slow

garda reviewIt may be a surprise to many but gardaí were not entitled to vote until the late 1950s. Robert Block examines legal rights that the frontline has had to fight for – not all of which have been won.

Robert block“That others may live.” This is the motto of the US military’s corps of pararescue, a group of highly trained soldiers, medics and pilots who are tasked with rescuing their comrades from the most dire of situations. They will put their lives in jeopardy and, if needs be, sacrifice themselves if it means that those they seek to rescue will get home safely. They have the special privilege to wear a maroon beret – to symbolise the blood they have shed for those they have saved. But while they represent an example of courage and self-sacrifice it is somewhat sharply focused due to the extreme nature of their job. There are many other, more softly spoken examples of quiet courage and steadfast service, and they are closer to home than we might think.

The Industrial Relations (Members of the Gardaí and Defence Forces) Bill, 2015 proposes to allow the gardaí and the military, through their respective representative bodies, to collectively negotiate over issues of pay and working conditions. In essence it will allow for a degree of unionisation – however, the media have decided to selectively define the whole matter as one of allowing gardaí to strike.

“It is only fair that in the 21st century all members of our society can benefit from the legal protections that attach to employment, whether they be gardaí, military or civilian…”

In fact it goes beyond this and intends to deal with, amongst other things, the circumstances that might arise when a member of the Force becomes insolvent; an unfortunately all too common problem faced by many in Irish society today. But the fact that the bill is being proposed now, in 2015, when all other members of society have enjoyed these rights for so long can be interpreted in different ways. It may be said that we expect too much from members of the gardaí; that we expect them to forgo some of their rights as citizens in order to serve the needs of the greater public. Indeed until the late 1950s members of the gardaí were not even allowed to vote.

However, there is another possible interpretation. It is that despite the hardships and privations, despite the restrictions and all the other difficulties that members of the gardaí face they still put on their uniform and walk their beats. The go out into an uncertain world and place themselves there, visibly, to show the public that they can feel safe and secure in their cities, towns and villages and that their protectors are never far away. Despite the changing dynamic of criminality in our country, with organised and highly armed gangs, the members of the Force continue to be, for the most part, unarmed. This increased level of danger, combined with the numerous difficulties that arose due to staffing levels and financial shortages, didn’t prevent the beats from being walked, didn’t prevent inquiries being carried out. The gardaí remain a positive force in our society.

What the bill seeks to address, in some small way, is the issue of what we, the public, expect from members of the gardaí. We demand so much of the Force. We expect every crime to be solved, every stolen bicycle to be recovered using the latest ‘CSI’ methods and every street to be free from fear and danger. We want to sleep soundly in our beds knowing that there is someone watching over us. And we want all of this for the lowest price possible (if not actually free) and we also want to be able to give out about checkpoints on the roads or grumble about the closure of rural police stations.

But we never stop to think of what an individual gives up in order to become a garda and it is unlikely that this will change anytime soon. A good example of this can be seen in attitudes towards the health service. We all complain about it and pour over the endless news stories about waiting times and trolleys, but we never acknowledge that people are seen and treated by dedicated professionals who do the best with the resources they have. Until we are really sick. It’s the same with policing; you will never appreciate it until you need it.

While all of the above is well known, members of the Force have accepted it with quiet modesty and determination; to continue to provide the high levels of service that the gardaí have become renowned for. One only has to cast an eye over the lists of Scott Medal recipients to see the levels of bravery and constancy exhibited by our police officers. And all of this is done without any fanfare, without any great demand for recognition.

It is, I believe, a positive step in the right direction to allow for the introduction of greater collective representation within the Force. It is only fair that in the 21st century all members of our society can benefit from the legal protections that attach to employment, whether they be gardaí, military or civilian. The ability to address deficiencies in pay and working conditions, training, equipment, etc is essential not only for the interests of the Force but also for the people the gardaí seeks to protect.

At the start of this article I spoke of the pararescue motto “that others may live.” While this may be a bit too extreme to apply to the role of the gardaí, as not all situations the Force faces can be considered ‘life or death’ scenarios, perhaps a variation of that motto could be applied. “That others may live in peace” would reflect the role played by the gardaí in our society and, just like the members of the pararescue teams, they do this for no great reward or recognition; just the satisfaction of making a difference and earning an honest living. In view of that it isn’t too much to ask that the members of the Force could enjoy the same legal rights as those they seek to protect, is it?  n

Robert Block is a practising Barrister

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

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