PJ Stone retired on February 2nd 2016 after more than forty years’ service to An Garda Síochána; but it will not be his policing skills that he will be remembered for – but his service to policing.
Love him or hate him, by his self-admission he never courted popularity either among the GRA executive, politicians, garda management or journalists. As a result, he was both uncompromising and uncompromised. He operated in the narrow channel that exists between being a trade union leader and a member of a disciplined Force. Here is a minefield littered with nuance. Over the years he received a significant volume of hate mail that fell into differing camps. Some, mostly anonymous or disguised, was from members of the Force who sought greater militancy or a magic wand in times of threats to pay and conditions. The remainder came from members of the public who could be forgiven for failing to understand the choreography or theatre that underlie the needs of a staff association trying to balance the needs of its members while not exposing them to discipline regulations or criminal law. This remains no easy ask.
PJ Stone is the longest serving of the three general secretaries of the Garda Representative Association, while the late Jack Marrinan was for many years the General Secretary of the Representative Body for Guards before the formation of the GRA in 1978. Stone joined the GRA executive in 1987 representing Waterford/Kilkenny and was elected president of the Association in 1989, became Deputy General Secretary in 1993 and acting General Secretary in 1997. Since 1999 he was the appointed General Secretary.
Those who know Stone best recognise in him the skills that made him an able political street-fighter. Politicians and journalists recognise an intellect that can hold five ideas simultaneously in his conscious mind, enabling him to timely set them out for maximum effectiveness. Journalists would often be left scratching their heads after a press conference – thinking that he had said one thing, but when they listened back to their recordings found he had said something different. This fox-like cunning often confounded his opponents; and sometimes his allies.
Those who worked on the other side of the negotiating table came to admire this in their opponent. He was brash, socially unfiltered in his comments when he believed that opponents were trying to outflank his people. He does not suffer fools or those who impose their unwelcome intrusions. In scheduled meetings he would patiently remind all present, regardless of rank or societal importance, that procedures and processes are there to be adhered to. He is largely remembered as a talented and successful negotiator.
Such observations are not counterintuitive to the public persona; but behind the scenes the personal life suggests a very different character of a reserved and, believe it or not, a shy introverted presence. Such is the contradiction that suggests that the working life may have required so much more energy to create the bullish thundering character to lead a powerful group of diverse workers; it is no easy task to make a resounding speech on Molesworth Street and to appear in the studio of Six One News within hours. Adrenaline cannot be turned on and off with a tap.
The role of general secretary is attentively scrutinised by members and also by the media; especially those who support the neoliberal ideals of reducing workers’ wages and reducing public services. One newspaper group saw nothing ethically unsound in publishing photographs of the homes and cars of general secretaries and other leaders during the bitter round of cuts to wages in the public service pay dispute leading to the Croke Park Agreement.
Let’s not forget that media commentary was awash with salient phrases to convince the public that the public sector was ‘bloated’, that public servants were ‘greedy’, allowances were ‘perks’ rather than pay, pensions were “Rolls Royce’, ‘gold-plated’ and ‘worth at least €1million on the market’. While many lost their jobs in the construction industry in 2009, the CSO figures did not support the portrayal of pay cuts in the private sector. This hostile media coverage created a divide between the private and public sectors, and with a timid government afraid to agree the proposals for unpaid leave days – it made pay talks near impossible. The looming threat of pay cuts and the removal of allowances and premium overtime rates for Sundays and public holidays, as suggested within the McCarthy Report, had the potential to bankrupt a disproportionate number of public servants.
Members were outraged and afraid, and much of this was personally directed at the leadership of the GRA; who were simultaneously attacked by the media and political elite in a campaign of vilification. In a high-risk strategy it was decided to confront government head on; and the GRA took the initiative in announcing it would ballot members on industrial action. The final outcome was that 93% voted for some form of industrial action, but stopping short of a withdrawal of services. It was a high-risk strategy that brought sympathetic commentary.
Why is this worthy of mention now? Because it is a clear example of the kind of personal pressure that comes at any leader of a workers’ group. It takes energy and hidden strength to absorb the constant scapegoating inherent within a grouping of equals. It has been said of political parties that they are akin to an extended family feuding over the reading of a will; staff associations and trade unions have opaque internal politics in a similar way. You can’t please everyone, and as leader you must orchestrate conflict and incorporate contrarian ideas in order to unify or project solidarity.
This was where PJ Stone shone. He easily received the loudest roar in the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght in 2013 as he walked up to the stage. He appeared anxious in the hours leading up to what has become one of the most significant events in protecting allowances, unsocial hours and overtime payments – but you’d never know so from watching his speech, “the toothpaste is out of the tube and it ain’t going back”. Cue the roar of applause. He was not averse to fits of giggles or eye-watering laughter too; which would cause those of all ranks to seek him out to catch the mood.
Let’s not forget that PJ Stone’s leadership navigated the ‘blue flu’; there was a great pressure shared in head office as the hours slowly ticked by, and the shooting of an armed raider during those tense hours. Pay campaigns are notoriously tricky; to keep both public opinion and members’ expectations onside is a delicate balancing act fraught with obstacles. By his own admission, Stone thought the chances of his arrest before a press conference to announce a ballot of gardaí on industrial action “was somewhere around 20%”. It was a tense affair as he danced the fine line between performance and mutiny.
Such is the incongruence of the public displays of representation. Many more gardaí owe their jobs to Stone’s intervention in welfare and disciplinary issues. He was a tireless worker for those who had suffered injustice or ill-fortune; many readers will recognise their own cases. More publicly, in his final year, he had the courage to espouse constitutional equality for all members; to protect the tax credits and life assurance benefits for those in same-sex relationships – on the point of principle that no one should be told who they can marry. This illustrated his core attribute of defying expectation and displaying empathy for those in need – and a distrust of those wielding great power.
It is often said that all political careers end in failure. PJ Stone’s final output was perhaps his finest; all members will have received the submission to the Haddington Road Review of garda pay and conditions. With that he signed off; seeking no fuss.
For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.