This week a video began circulating on social media. The video captured a moment in which a member of the Garda Siochana viciously battoned a peaceful protester at a NAMA house protest in Gorey, Co. Wexford. For many, shock was felt. For many more, there was disgust, especially on social media. I have been meaning to write a piece on Garda brutality and misconduct for several months now, so here is an examination of the Garda Siochana with anecdotal, empirical and political analysis. It would be a dereliction for the left not to take up this question in response to this instance, so here is my offering and thoughts (for the what it’s worth that’s for you to decide).
Focusing on anecdotes and personal experiences first. When I was a newly joined member of the Socialist Party in 2012, I gained a serious lesson in political education by seeing the violent nature of the guards, and as a consequence, of the state. My first experience of protesting the austerity mongering government of Fine Gael/Labour found me in the chambers of the Tallaght Council. The protesters managed to reach the internal chamber, there we protested a meeting where members of the council were discussing and passing motions over austerity policies, namely the property tax. Soon after the occupation of the chamber began, the guards were summoned to bring it to an end. They stated that we had no right or quarter being in the chamber, but we argued stalwartly that we had a right to protest the formation and implementation of Austerity policies. The guards gave us an ultimatum; “Get out, or we’ll be back to arrest you.”
Within fifteen minutes, the guards returned with reinforcements, several of them were not in uniform. The ultimatum was posed again, we maintained our stance, and a struggle began between the guards trying to arrest me and protestors holding onto me. Following the failed attempts of arresting me, the guards upped the ante, and started to seriously manhandle the protestors. The culmination of the manhandling was when a 6ft 3″, 17/18 stone plain clothed guard stormed in, decided he didn’t like the look of my friend Aaron (who had just turned 19) , grabbed Aaron, and decided Aaron’s head would be an opportune instrument to restructure the council chamber wall. The guard’s violent and vicious attack on Aaron concussed him, and Aaron was dragged out whilst unconscious to a Garda car (if memory serves correctly). They say that the experience of a day on a picket teaches you more about politics than a period of several years; and a similar logic exists when you see what is meant to be the keeper of the peace barbarically attack a teenager.
Brutality and misconduct are fairly commonplace for most police forces in the world. In Ireland, most young people wouldn’t have memory of the full extent of the viciousness of the guards, but those who lived during the seventies and eighties would have potent memories of regular gross misconduct and harassment the Garda Siochana imposed against anyone who was seen to be subverting the Irish Free State; and even further. Harassment against families and innocents were common themes.
In the last year, however, new layers of people are learning first-hand from experience the political role of the guards in society. The anti-water charges movement came into confrontation with the interests of big business and the state, with many anti-water charges protesters seeing the side that the Garda Siochana as an institution was on. ‘LookLeft Magazine‘ shared a very apt post last December time of a group of a dozen (if not more) Guards defending the injunction which prevented protestors from interfering with the implementation of water metres by Sierra Water. The caption captured the political reality (in perhaps a slightly exaggerated way albeit) by calling the Gardai “Denis O’Brien’s Militia.”
The Garda Siochana is an arm of the Irish state and therefore, cannot be a politically neutral force. As socialists have pointed out again and again from Engels to Lenin, the state is fundamentally an instrument of class rule and domination. When you have periods of high class antagonisms in society, the bare truth about the fundamental purpose and function of the guards comes to the fore. Many Marxists would explain it like this; We don’t have an issue with a guard in the sense of him doing a social duty like helping an elderly person cross a road , genuinely keeping the peace etc. However, this is not the fundamental role of the police in society. The fundamental role of the guards is to maintain the law and order of the state in a given time, and the core of the law and order of the state is defined by whose interests the state represents. And in the instance in the water charges movement, the guards have propped up the interests of the super-rich oligarchs like Denis O’Brien; whether they are conscious of this or not is irrelevant. The fundamental, core laws in capitalist societies are the ones that defend the state’s legitimacy and the ownership of private property(the right to be a capitalist). On top on this, there are a myriad of laws that don’t relate to the economic base and political structures . But they aren’t the fundamental laws that determine the politics of a society; the laws of property and economics are the fundamental core to capitalist society.
The Garda Siochana is unquestionably an undemocratic institution. Its existence is another indicator of the reality of the thin democratic structures that we have in society as it stands. Think about it, if we really lived in a richly democratic society, why can’t we vote for our keepers of the peace? Why can’t we vote for our sergeants? Why can’t we take part in the law-making process that produce the laws that they uphold?
Another anecdotal example of the undemocratic and unaccountable nature of the Garda Siochana is that after my friend Aaron was attacked, he submitted a formal written complaint to the Garda Ombudsman. The Ombudsman to this day, three years later, hasn’t gotten back to Aaron.
The horrific and brutal attack against the peaceful protestor in Gorey has frightened and disgusted people. It has raised people’s consciousness about the not-so-latent behaviour of the Guards. GSOC are currently reviewing this, and there could be a strong likelihood that the guard who committed the act of GBH will be heavily sanctioned, but only because he was caught. Otherwise, if the structures of the guards were just and diligently dedicated to keeping the peace, why hasn’t the guard who attacked my friend ever been sanctioned?
Fundamentally, those who should be entrusted with the keeping of the peace should be the working class and communities. Workers should be able to elect their peacekeepers, especially with the positions of higher authority and power. And they should be able to be recalled just as easily are they are put in, this is an example of a healthy practice of participatory democracy in action. The results would logically result in a more disciplined and stalwart force for the common good. Under the political structure of capitalism, the chances of that happening are slim to none; for reasons already outlined. In a socialist society, the alternative that I put forward would be the common sense and common practice. It is in the interests of the political and economic elites to keep our society thinly democratic; they relish in the process of voting in elections every 4/5 years, as that allows them to keep their parasitic functions and existence going. However, the thing about the water charges movement is that we have seen the capability of ordinary working class communities in self-organizing against obstacles and forces that are detrimental to the common good. This is proof that ordinary people can pursue and partake in further and richer democratic practices than the ones that we have in place at the moment, which only go so far as to keep the rich wealthy and powerful and the oppressed down.
By Shane Finnan
Shane is a Socialist Party activist based in Cork, you can follow him on Twitter @ShaneFinnan