This article was formerly titled “The State of Policing”. It deals with the killing of John Carthy, in April 2000, by Irish police (Gardai), in Abbeylara, Co. Longford. The incident has caused six years of controversy, culminating in the Barr Tribunal.
[Note to overseas readers: the following article is written in a specifically Irish context, but with references to policing in the United States and the United Kingdom. I realise that some of my fears of an Irish ‘police state’ may seem like small potatoes to readers who feel that they’re *already* residing in a police state. It may even come as a surprise that most police officers in these islands go about their business *unarmed*. So, before anyone grumbles that I’m getting hot under the collar about trivial matters, I would like to make it clear that I’m not all that excited by the idea of armed police or ubiquitous surveillance…]
- ‘Security, the friendly mask of change at which we smile, not seeing
what smiles behind’
– Edward A. Robinson
Let me get one thing straight. I have no personal gripe with the GardaÃ (Irish police), despite having being accosted, searched and questioned on several occasions for no apparent reason other than keeping strange hours or minding my own business.
In fact, years ago, the GardaÃ once saved me from a rather nasty situation, where I was, with some friends, under siege in our apartment. Outside were a considerable number of crazy folk, armed with knives. We had committed no sin – in fact, it was a case of mistaken identity on their part, but these lads were not to be reasoned with.
But… something has been bothering me these past few weeks, and I feel compelled to write about it. What follows is not a rant against the GardaÃ themselves, or the ‘SWATification’ of its officers, it’s a pondering on the state of Irish society, with the view that the recent shooting dead of John Carthy in Abbeylara, Co. Longford by members of the GardaÃ, is a symptom of a burgeoning problem in Irish society, rather than just being a problem in itself.
On April 20th, after a 25-hour siege at his house in Abbeylara, 27 year-old John Carthy walked out of his house, carrying a shotgun (there has since been speculation that the gun was empty). After ignoring several orders to put down the gun, he was shot dead.
The official reason given for his death was that some unarmed GardaÃ were in the vicinity, and needed to be protected. If, as reported, there were already 60 armed GardaÃ in the area, why the hell were unarmed ones in the firing line? Why an assault rifle? Why not shoot Carthy’s gun arm with a sniper rifle, or at least attempt something less drastic than killing him?
Was Carthy a terrorist? A desperate criminal, a cornered dog snapping at his would-be captors?
John Carthy, it would seem, was a man with a history of depression (not an uncommon affliction) who seems to have been able to cope with his life – and simply lost the plot, taking potshots at GardaÃ with a shotgun. He holed up in his house, with his gun and 20 or so cartridges of No. 6 (bird shot), which as Phoenix magazine pointed out, was used by the South African apartheid police as a non-lethal riot-control weapon.
Ok, so he fired rounds at the GardaÃ (no-one was hit), but was it really necessary to bring in some 60 members of the Emergency Response Unit (ERU), armed to the teeth, with not a screed of non-lethal weaponry (not that the use of these is beyond reproach) or sniper skills amongst them?
Why was a small army required to deal with one disturbed young man?
Is ‘shoot to kill’ the policy of the ERU? We may never know. The rules allowing gardai to open fire are secret… The Minister for Justice, John O’Donoghue announced that there will be independent inquiry into the Abbeylara incident, and that there is no obligation to release details of the internal Garda investigation. However, Garda Commissioner Pat Byrne has since announced that a report will be made public.
Still though, we are left with the word of an organisation, apparently allowed to shoot someone, investigate themselves, and publish the ensueing report at their own discretion.
Something seems dreadfully wrong, and I’m not the only one raising my eyebrows. There would appear to be a unanimous agreement that the Garda Complaints Board, the body which performs internal investigations, has something of the farce about its operating procedures. I have experience of the Complaints Board, but I’m far from being its only critic – Brendan Howlin of the Labour Party seems particularly vociferous on the matter.
A couple of years ago, unbeknownst to the all the other individuals concerned, I witnessed what I perceived to be an act of violence on the part of a garda, so I made a complaint – with the assistance of two Dublin TDs (Teachta DÃ¡la – members of the DÃ¡il, the Irish assembly), Frances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael) and Eoin Ryan (Fianna Fail). I had no axe to grind other than to question what I saw – I didn’t care for action, i.e. arrests, investigations, prosecutions etc. I asked for an explanation.
After several months of phone calls with superintendents, letters from the Garda Commissioner and the Minister for Justice, meetings with inspectors, I finally received a letter from the Garda Complaints Board stating that, in their opinion, ‘neither an offence or a breach of discipline on the part of any member of complained of has been disclosed.’
I replied, enquiring if this meant that the event which I had witnessed had not happened (i.e., was I lying or delusional?), or if it had, were they telling me that it wasn’t a crime to knock a handcuffed, unresisting prisoner to the ground with a blow to the back of the head? Did they accept my claim, but couldn’t find evidence to corroborate it?
They couldn’t tell me that. Executive Officer Miriam Mulligan told me that ‘the Board does not record reasons for its decisions. In these circumstances, I am not in a position to provide a detailed response to the questions you have raised’. Was I satisfied? I think not. No transparency.
For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been quietly gauging reactions to the Carthy shooting. One person flippantly commented that ‘it was no big deal – things like that happen in the USA all the time’.
This is not the United States of America (oh, but sometimes I wonder). We are a small republic of 3.6 million people. Ireland attempts to pride itself on its sense of community, courtesy and discretion. In a recent survey of ‘Convivial Communities’ in Resurgence magazine, Ireland scored 99.6 – second place – to Lithuania’s 99.8. Denmark, Slovenia, Estonia and Austria were also in the 90s. On the scale, which runs from 0-100, the USA scored 0.06, Russia 1.5, Japan 2.0, Germany 9.2 and the UK 19.4. The author of the article, David Skrbina had, with his colleague Ken Brady, defined a ‘Convivial Community’ as a nation on the ‘scale of ordinary humans… societies that are transparent, responsive, self-determined’.
No surprises there, I hope… except that maybe our transparency might soon become opaque. Another difference – we have very strict guns laws here, in comparison with, for instance, the USA. Handguns and any kind of automatic rifle are totally illegal here. Shotguns and low calibre hunting rifles are not, but they are subject to a certain amount of control. To the surprise of many visitors, our uniformed police do not normally carry guns. This is also the case in the United Kingdom, where similar gun control is enforced.
However, during the stand-off at John Carthy’s house, we were treated to images ‘a garda in Star Wars gear and armed to the teeth’ which Gregory Allen, in a letter to the Irish Times described as a ‘truly frightening evidence of a renewed threat to the Irish ideal of an unarmed police service.’
Allen continues: ‘there was a time when an unarmed Garda sergeant, relying on local knowledge and native wit, succeeded in overcoming a distressed neighbour armed with a shotgun or a pitchfork. In a difficult case, small reinforcements might arrive. But no guns – and no media frenzy. Somehow the patient would be disarmed, perhaps after a struggle. I cannot recall a single incident of death or serious injury.’
Meanwhile, Phoenix magazine, that merciless mole of Irish politics and business (and wherever the twain meet), hypothesised that ‘if youthful gardaÃ are taken out of the force and inducted into a secret SAS-style unit, armed to the teeth and dressed as soldiers, and are then asked to respond to a civilian incident in peacetime rural Ireland, the consequences are likely to be tragic’. In the following issue, Phoenix commented on the apparent media war between the ERU and the Army Ranger Wing (ARW), the highly trained ‘special-forces’ troops, some of whom are currently serving in East Timor, where they work alongside New Zealand’s Special Air Service (SAS). Following the Abbeylara shooting, the ARW let it become known that their more deft methods would have taken care of the situation without fatality. Furthermore, it would appear, from media leaks, that during ‘secret’ training at the Curragh army camp, seven out of nine members of the ERU have failed marksmanship tests administered by none other than the ARW.
Another colleague of Blather proposed that there was no coincidence between the images of black clad garda paramilitaries, armed with assault rifles, on our TVs and in our newspapers, and the similar recent images of armed federal agents ‘rescuing’ Elian Gonzalez in Miami, in what has set to become this the year 2000 answer to the Clinton scandal.
To this I would add the recent riots in Washington DC, London, Berlin and Poland, where we were treated to TV coverage of black clad riot police gassing and beating demonstrators. The scenes in Washington seemed the most brutal, with officers holding their batons ready for connection with the clavicles of unarmed demonstrators, who seemed guilty of no more than taunting obviously fearful officers. Free speech my arse.
In his book Hells Angels, published in 1966, Hunter S. Thompson predicted: ‘It may be that America is developing a whole new category of essentially social criminals… persons who threaten the police and the traditional social structure even when they are breaking no law… because they view The Law with contempt and the police with distrust, and this abiding resentment can explode without warning at the slightest provocation.’ Not only was he right about America, but Europe too, where public dissent has come be viewed as something of a spectator event, with the protestors supposedly outside society, rather than members of society who are unhappy with their lot.
Are we desensitised? It’s very easy to watch such riots on TV, without wondering about why the protestors feel the need to ’cause trouble’ on the streets, or what state of fear the riot police must be in to feel the need to quash all protestors – although, I can understand why they would want to ‘neutralise’ the more violent ones. Still, we do seem to be able to distance ourselves from riot scenes in ‘civilised’ countries (but wasn’t the spectacle of the mob wrecking of that MacDonalds in London a treat?). If told by the newsreader that the riot scenes were being beamed from a country in the clutches of a ‘despotic ruler’, would we be as apathetic to the people being beaten up? Damn it, as far as I’m concerned, I do not pay my taxes so that the police can beat the living daylights out of me, or anyone else, regardless of their ‘crime’. Much less shoot someone. I think they’re running scared. Popular ‘alternative’ opinion is that if the police are scared, then ‘we’ have them on the run. I disagree. A society made secure by fearful policing – a police state – is not a society in which I would care to reside. We can argue about this until the cows come home, but the police are not aliens, robots, slaves, etc. They too are members of our society, and if they are becoming fearful and marginalised, then we, their employers, have to take at least some of the responsibility.
Back home, I wonder if Garda Commissioner Pat Byrne has been off drinking with US Attorney General Janet Reno. Suddenly our boys in blue, and in particular the boys in matt-black, the Emergency Response Unit, are wearing this seasons finest in SWAT fashions, in anticipation of a hijack or having to deal with a bunch of terrorists. Instead, they end up sitting outside a bungalow in Longford, where they pop the clogs of John Carthy, without any reasonable explanation. If there’s a good reason, the GardaÃ are not bothered about telling us. Maybe they were scared, and this led to some trigger-happiness. But apparently we don’t need to know… so much for transparency.
But that’s life, baby. We’re a new, flash, Celtick Tigger that’s addicted to economic growth and the myth of progress. I can’t help but feel that something is awry. There seems to be a blind acceptance that everything should change from what it was, to something new, regardless of the consequences. New is good. New is good. Long live the new newness. Granted, there’s good being done – the new confidence in outing the various Irish political and religious scandals that have been bubbling under the surface for years. But I think that, with the floodgates open, we’ve lost something of the common touch, the discretion that we allege is intrinsic to Irish life.
Funnily enough, a few days after I penned the first draft of this diatribe, British current affairs magazine New Statesman featured an article by Robert Chesshyre titled ‘The British Bobby’, an exploration of the gulf between what the British public want: a familiar, trustworthy local policeman – and what the public gets: brash young high-tech coppers in fast cars. Coincidence? I think not.
To refer back to Gregory Allen’s letter to the Irish Times, ‘there was a time when an unarmed Garda sergeant, relying on local knowledge and native wit, succeeded in overcoming a distressed neighbour armed with a shotgun or a pitchfork.’ This wasn’t so long ago – I come from a rural background, and remember when my parents would know the local guard personally. This would neither compromise their position, or his. It was in everybody’s interest to get on with each other. These days, no-one seems to know the guards – they whizz by their cars, and well, that’s it. In the wake of the Abbeylara incident, the Irish Independent published an article titled Rise of the Heli-cops, documenting an evening with the Garda Air Support Unit. The piece read more like a post-apocalyptic science-fiction story than a night in Dublin, with the focus on remote control policing using high-tech imaging equipment. The emphasis seems to be on getting the job done with a minimum of human contact. I suppose the next step is for the Department of Justice to sub-contract the policing of the nation to a private security firm – and anyone who’s noticed blue uniformed security-men around the gates of Irish army barracks will already know this process has already found favour in the Department of Defence…
This lack of human contact – during the Abbeylara incident, the local GardaÃ, who were personally acquainted with John Carthy (who, admittedly, had shot out their car windows) were kept away from the situation, and instead Carthy was surrounded by dozens of armed strangers. Surely this severed any empathic connection that Carthy had without the outside world? When the ERU arrived, they seem to have initiated a textbook siege, instead of approaching the situation with any sense of intuition, common sense, or understanding of the mentality of the man they were surrounding. All of this is, of course, speculation on my part. I don’t know, and presumably won’t because the official report won’t be public.
Some days after the shooting, former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Albert Reynolds suggested that ‘new laws may be necessary to increase the weapons options available to the Garda’. He does add that “There seems to be surprise that there wasn’t some other way of overwhelming the young chap”. Again, the emphasis is on changing laws, expenditure on weapons, technology, etc., as if it’s somehow possible to purchase off the rack crime-dissolving equipment. I think its time that that we examined the relationship between the ‘GardaÃ’ and the people they’re ‘guarding’. More laws often mean more the creation of more criminals… when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. Conversely, if cannabis was decriminalised tomorrow, there would be an awful lot less ‘criminals’ around the place. We don’t need more laws, we need better management of laws, and less political knee-jerk reactionism, leading to quick-fix legislative ‘solutions’.
In a recent article on Salon.com, When Cops Become Combat Troops, Bonnie Bucqueroux, points out that, in America, at least, ‘the educated and affluent seem to view policing like making sausage — better not look too closely or you risk losing your appetite for the end product. As long as crime rates keep falling, who cares?’ She does go on to write that, despite the problems in policing, alternative methods in Chicago and Boston are paying off, with the introduction of civilian review boards, and a drop in police brutality complaints.
It is my opinion that neither extra legislation or more expenditure on hardware will lead to better policing. A more balanced relationship between people and the GardaÃ certainly will. Where I live now, in Dublin’s north inner city, there’s no shortage of GardaÃ on footpatrol. I often nod to them as I’m leaving or arriving home, and I get what passes for a perfunctory acknowledgement. I think I’m going to have to start talking to them, in an attempt to welcome them back to society. I might even ask them in for tea. A controversial proposal, I realise, and one that will have me castigated (or worse) by my colleagues, but I don’t care. I am not of the opinion that head-to-head confrontation is going to get us anywhere. Removing the police from their wobbly pedestal of fearful authority, fast cars, cool technology and guns just might.
Dave (daev) Walsh
May 20th 2000
References, media coverage:
‘Armed gardaÃ wait outside the house in Co Longford where John Carthy had barricaded himself. Mr Carthy was shot dead by gardaÃ when he emerged on Thursday.’ Photograph by David Sleator, The Irish Times, April 22, 2000
Shocked villagers in mourning after killing Friday, The Irish Times, April 21, 2000
Rules allowing gardai to open fire are secret, The Irish Times, April 21, 2000
Siege gunman shatters the peace at a sleepy rural crossroads in Longford, The Examiner, April 21, 2000
Tragic end to stand off after 27 year old aims shotgun at officers, The Examiner, April 21, 2000
External inquiry into Longford shooting sought, The Irish Times, April 22, 2000
Locals question gardai’s use of force to end siege, The Irish Times, April 22, 2000
Gardai not equipped for siege confrontations, The Irish Times, April 22, 2000
Siege shooting investigation should be made known to public, The Examiner, April 24, 2000
‘Searching inquiry’ urged by Longford family, Wednesday, April 26, 2000
Publication of report into Longford gunmanâ€™s death could be withheld for up to six months, The Examiner April 26, 2000
Shooting of John Carthy, Gregory Allen, letter to The Irish Times, May 1, 2000
Public inquiry would save confidence in gardaÃ, The Irish Times, April 27, 2000
Reynolds says Carthy’s mother not forced to leave, The Irish Times,April 28, 2000
Rise of the heli-cops, Irish Independent, April 28, 2000
Bypassing of local Garda in Abbeylara criticised, The Irish Times, May 1, 2000 http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/opinion/2000/0501/opt3.htm
Facts of Carthy death will be made public, The Irish Times, April 29, 2000
Pat Byrne’s ERU, The Phoenix, pp. 13, Vol 18, No. 9, May 5, 2000
Army Winning War, The Phoenix, pp. 5, Vol 18, No. 10, May 19, 2000
Official Garda Website
The British bobby, Robert Chesshyre, The New Statesman May 1, 2000
When cops become combat troops, Salon.com, May 2, 2000
Hells Angels, Hunter S. Thompson, 1966, ISBN 0-14-028555-5, pp. 127
Letter from Mary Davitt, Staff Officer, Garda SÃochÃ¡na Complaints Board, to Dave Walsh, March 8, 1999
Letter from Dave Walsh, to Mary Davitt, Staff Officer, Garda SÃochÃ¡na Complaints Board, April 12, 1999
Letter from Miriam Mulligan, Executive Officer, Garda SÃochÃ¡na Complaints Board, to Dave Walsh, April 27, 1999