The debate on firearms use has been ongoing since the establishment of the Garda Síochána writes Darren Martin.
The Garda Síochána is predominately an unarmed uniformed police force which has served and protected its citizens through the early years of the State, emerging from the violent struggle post-independence, the establishment of the Free State, the civil war, the threats posed to the State by armed unlawful organisations, the increased threat posed to society by armed organised criminals involved in the drugs trade and other criminal activities.
In all these years many unarmed members of the guards were killed or injured in the line of duty. The men and, in later years, the women of the Garda Síochána have policed the State with little more than a notebook, a baton and a pair of handcuffs. The basis of the unarmed police force is recalled by the instruction issued by its first Commissioner who stated that, ‘The Civil Guard will succeed not by force of arms, or numbers, but on their moral authority as servants of the people’.
The debate on the Garda Síochána being armed always results in a nostalgic reference to this instruction and the basis for not having an armed police force. The historical basis for this instruction is very different than the romantic notion of unarmed policing on the moral authority of the people.
Prior to the establishment of the Garda Síochána, the Royal Irish Constabulary were garrisoned around Ireland and were an armed colonial police force whose purpose was the maintaining of the peace through armed policing and intelligence gathering. They were tasked with ensuring that rebellious activities were monitored and suppressed. Their history with rural Ireland is forever associated with evictions of tenants and the maintaining of the control of the Crown over Ireland. In Dublin the DMP, an unarmed police force was tasked with maintaining the peace in the capital.
After the Treaty was signed the move towards the establishment of the new police force fell to a committee to oversee the transition of policing from the RIC to a new Free State police force. The DMP was retained but the RIC was disbanded to make way for the new Civic Guards. The first recruits were barracked in the RDS and in the absence of any formal training programme the instructors, mostly ex-RIC instructors, gave instruction based on the old RIC training. This training involved instruction in firearms and drill. One of the first actions of the new Commissioner was obtaining new furniture for administration staff followed by the procurement of firearms intended to be used by the new police force. Although they were yet to operate in a uniform, many of these new Civic Guards worked in civilian clothing and carried rifles and a Webley revolver. They were also placed on protection duties in Government buildings and as security escorts to the ministers of the day.
On May 15 1922 the event known as the Kildare Mutiny was to change the policy on arming the new police force. When Commissioner Staines visited the Kildare barracks the armoury was raided by the new civic guards and firearms were seized in protest of ex-RIC officers being given senior positions in the new civic guards. The Commissioner had to withdraw from the barracks under armed guard back to Dublin.
The Commissioner, later that year, ordered that the Civic Guards were not to carry rifles on duty but they were permitted to carry a Webley revolver for personal protection. The policing committee made the recommendation that the new Civic Guards were not to have any political affiliations appointed to positions and more importantly that the new force should be an unarmed force. Whether this was to prevent another Kildare mutiny or not is a matter for debate. It must be remembered that at this time the proliferation of firearms throughout the country was extensive with many groups having access to firearms and little legal restriction on their ownership.
Later Commissioner Staines would issue his famous order that the guards were to be unarmed which was achieved in early 1923. The first uniformed members of the guards were starting to appear in the towns and cities throughout the country. The new members were often the target of intimidation and harassment from both sides of the civil war but managed to remain outside of the political arguments and concentrated on keeping the peace. They were unfortunately the target of attacks from both sides of the political divide. They found themselves policing in a time where the gun was still very much part of politics rather than criminal enterprise.
The DMP was still operating in Dublin; a police force that was unarmed until it was merged into the Garda Síochána in 1925 under the Police Forces Amalgamation Act of 1925. Another major legal provision which was introduced that year was the Firearms Act 1925. This act is still the basis for firearms licensing in the State today. The use of firearms by the Garda Síochána has no specific legal provision; rather the law provides the exemption from licensing requirements under the Firearms Acts for a member of the Garda Síochána when on duty.
The Garda Síochána didn’t have its first Garda Síochána code until 1928. Within that 1928 code were instructions on the possession of firearms by members. It made it a disciplinary offence for a member to have possession of a firearm, even in a private capacity without permission. It was required for a garda member to apply to the Commissioner for permission to have a firearm. There obviously still remained the worry that a similar situation as the Kildare Mutiny should not arise again.
The use of firearms by the Garda Síochána has always been in civilian clothing or specialist clothing. The types of firearms used have changed over the years. The two types of weapons used can be traced from the early days of the guards. The first is a hand held weapon; the Webley revolver gave way to the Smith and Weston revolver which in turn was replaced by the Walter PPK and the Sig 38mm. The advantage of a hand gun is that it is easy to carry and have concealed where necessary. The second is a shoulder mounted firearm. In the early days of the Garda Síochána the Lee Enfield rifle was replaced by the Thompson machine gun. This in turn was replaced by the Uzi machine gun. Today the MP7 is in use by specialist armed units and regional support units. The advantage of a shoulder mounted firearm is stability and control during deployment.
Recently the Uzi machine gun was withdrawn from service in certain stations and now plain clothes members must rely on hand held firearms only. The debate on firearms use has been ongoing since the establishment of the guards. What has changed is now high powered firearms are being used by organised criminal gangs who have demonstrated their ability and willingness to use them with little regard to the safety of the public. The emerging dangers posed by new terrorist organisations too require a policing readiness. The need to use a firearm by a guard in a policing situation is thankfully a rare occurrence. It must be remembered that every guard that carries a firearm on duty does so voluntarily. Every guard who goes on duty hopes that they will never have to use a firearm. Obviously continued training in firearms use and tactical awareness is an imperative for today’s policing needs. Wherever the debate on the guards being armed leads, it should find a new basis other than a nostalgic look back at the words of the first Commissioner; as noble as they are, the basis for not arming the guards may be based on more than the ideal of an unarmed police force in the new Free State and delivered in a time of political uncertainty.
The uniformed garda being armed will not prevent committed armed criminals intent on injury or death but for those who volunteer to carry firearms as part of their duty require the best level of training and support when accepting the responsibility of carrying a firearm. There seems to be the preference amongst the general public that the Garda Síochána should remain unarmed but it should be for the right reasons and not at the expense of the safety of the public or its members. The debate too should not be on the type of firearm used or how it looks when deployed by armed units. Having armed guards on patrol does not equate with a failure to police a peaceful society; instead it is a society which protects what the previous generations of unarmed Garda Síochána members has strived to achieve on the moral authority of the people they protect, independent of politics and the rule of the gun.
Darren Martin is a Detective Garda attached to Harcourt Square. He also holds a BL, Barrister-at-Law from the Honourable Society of Kings Inns. A Master of Laws (LL.M) from Trinity College Dublin. A Master of Science (MSc) in Police Science and Management from the University of Portsmouth, a Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) from University College Dublin, a Bachelor of Arts Hons (BA) Administration of Justice from the Institute of Public Administration and a Certificate on Terrorism Studies from the University of St. Andrews.
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