A very old friend told me a touching story in the pub last Friday and it was one that made me think about things as they have become today.
Back in the early seventies he knew of a big Garda Sergeant who hailed from the West of Ireland but plodded the beat in a Leinster town. A well-known wag in the town drove as a commercial traveler by day and drank his head off at night in the local boozer. The Sergeant had seen him many times make his way unsteadily to his car for the short drive home. Then one night, he'd had way too much and the copper pulled him over.
One look at the guy and he asked him to get out and get into the passenger seat. The Sergeant them drove them both to the man's house and handed him over to his wife. But he took the time to tell the wife about the repeated drink-driving and said that if it happened again, he'd have to put the guy off the road and he'd lose his job as a result. This massive Sergeant turned his doe-eyes to the wife and pleaded with her to sort her husband out.
It was very intelligent policing because our commercial traveller kept his job and marriage as a result. The rural Sergeant knew that a police warning would make little difference but setting the wife on the guy changed everything. As such, it is one of the best examples of 'crime prevention' I had ever heard. The policeman and the civilian stayed friends too and the rural Leinster town had little crime at that time. Further, what crime there was got solved because that Sergeant could rely on the locals to tell him everything. You see, they liked and trusted him, simple as that.
Fast forward to today's Ireland and that has all changed. The Gardai are a pretty impersonal lot now and their capacity for making a value-judgement on the spot is all but gone. Today, the above offender would automatically be off the road and out of a job and his wife would have left him. Perhaps then rather than teaching him a lesson the whole affair could tip him over the edge. Maybe instead of giving up the drink he might turn to it in his desperation. And what does that achieve?
We have a good police force in Ireland but they cannot do their job without our help. Just like we depend on the Gardai, they depend on us. The expression, "Gardai are asking for witnesses," is regularly heard and when serious crimes go to court they need us on those juries as well. They even have their own P.R. Department to liaise with the public. The fact that our uniformed Gardai are unarmed makes us appreciate them and their bravery even more in today's society. There is respect for the force in the general population but I sense that the politicians are diminishing our respect for our protectors.
They closed their community Garda stations by the dozen and allowed, (even incentivised) senior members to retire in droves. Then they hit them in the pocket too. They send them out in cheap cars with bad equipment to fight well-heeled violent drug dealers and they even made a hash of the communications system 'Pulse' forcing individual Gardai to use their own mobile phones. But worst of all to my mind, they have introduced a raft of petty small-minded laws to harass the citizen at every twist and turn and then left it to the Gardai to infuriate us. The penalty points system is a case in point. GATSO vans make a fortune catching us doing a couple of miles over the limit and before we know where we are, we are in the frame to be put off the road. This threatens our job prospects and makes us very resentful and guess who we take out the resentment on? The Garda uniform is the symbol of that repression and many quietly vow not to be so helpful to them again should they need it.
Bad laws will always bring bad outcomes. Politicians eager to make an impression as a 'tough nut' can send the force out to break up legal protests with force. When that happens, it becomes a case of us and them – the people versus the Gardai. Take the NCT for example. They are running long waiting lists so if your test is due this month and you phone them to book it now, you won't get an appointment for ages, through no fault of your own. However, it means that your car technically has not been passed to be on the road. That's bad enough but did you know that the Gardai can then order you out of your car and leave it at the roadside until you organize to have it transported, at a huge unexpected cost. Depending on where you are ordered to leave the car it could also be vandalized overnight. And the infuriating thing is that the car itself was perfectly roadworthy before you were stopped. But the politicians made it an offense under law and the attending Garda could fine you as well and because the offense is covered by the Road Traffic Act you could be subject to penalty points. For what?
The more I talk to decent ordinary guys about this the more I see a hunted look cross their faces. What saddens me is that their anger and annoyance is not directed at the politicians for the stupid laws but it's aimed squarely at the poor Garda who had to enforce those laws. They feel cheated and wronged and I would suggest that they would be less inclined to be model citizens who might come forward with information to help the Gardai with their inquiries in the future.
Years ago we used to talk about the fabric of society. Central to that civic idea was always the relationship between the civil population and the force. There was give and take on both sides and that relationship was warm and good-natured in the main. We all were outraged if one of them was shot while on duty and we took it as a personal affront to our core decency. That decency is now being tested to the limit and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that a wedge is being driven between the guardians and the guarded to further the careers of selfish short-sighted politicians and vested interests.
Unless it is rolled back and a new Government strikes out many of the stupid laws that have been passed, things could become very uneasy and neither the Gardai nor the people will be to blame for that.