not a member? click here to sign up
Police and thieves
As with street demonstrators, there are diverse groupings within our Garda Siochána, some more transparent than others
Eamonn McCann, 24 May 2002
There were many reasons to be in Madrid in May, and few involved football. Great art, wild music, tapas and the sheer gutbusting energy. To happen on the May Day parade was a surprise and a bonus. I heard it before I saw it, a horn-blowing, flag-waving, song-singing and drum-beating extravaganza in red.
Families and trades union groups intermingled – singing the songs of revolution, struggle and freedom. There were also smaller and angrier knots, each with its own take on life, its own gripe with the world.
One was immediately struck at the vibrancy of the gathering, and realised that, more than most peoples in Europe, the Spanish appreciate their democracy, because they have known what it means to go without.
Over following days the point was reinforced, by Goya’s great paintings of the chaos of the Napoleonic wars and the uprising of May 2nd and 3rd, and by Picasso’s great raging reflection of the atrocity at Guernica, itself a forerunner of murderous assaults on civilians by all sides in subsequent wars.
But also, in paintings by Velasquez and Goya in particular, one saw a dark, ominous representation of Catholicism, sensed the terror of the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews not to mention the Inquisition. This followed through into the smug, violent excess of the Franco era.
So it’s no surprise that the Spaniards relish freedom that we still take for granted. True, there have been, and still are, many problems – a car bomb exploded within earshot while I was there. But on the whole, it’s irresistible.
It was clear from that May Day march, and subsequent celebrations I kept wandering through, home how comfortable Mediterranean people are in the streets. This isn’t just a matter of street theatre and celebrations. No, they protest as well. As we know, in France this is taken as a matter of routine. People shrug their shoulders and get on with it.
Perhaps it’s not quite as relaxed in Spain, but still, from what I could see, there is a wary mutual acceptance. As those marchers hummed, thrummed and drummed through the streets, the police made sure their path was cleared and the road-sweepers did likewise for their trail.
After all that, it was a shock to return to pictures of members of the Garda Siochana attacking demonstrators in a ‘Reclaim The Streets’ rally in Dame Street.
Clearly something went very very wrong in Dublin last week. Many witnesses accused the Gardaí of excessive violence. Cameras were confiscated and film or batteries removed. It is unsurprising that John O’Donoghue orders ‘a full report’ into the allegations. It is, regrettably, equally unsurprising that the Garda Representative Association has set its face against such an enquiry, and has claimed that almost everyone in the country is opposed to it.
The GRA and its spokespersons seem unable to distinguish between three entirely unrelated phenomena. The first of these is the joyriding and cop-baiting practised by young people from dead-end estates and townships at the centres and the edges of our urban areas. These people are sometimes known by our ignorant brethren in the red-tops as thugs.
The second is the drunken, urinatory and violent behaviour of individuals and groups in our towns and cities late on Friday and Saturday nights, and allegedly associated crimes, such as assaults and violent robberies. These also are often called thugs.
The third is the raggle taggle assortment of groups opposed to global capitalism, motorways, environmental degradation and the whole corporate urbanistic autmotobilised way of living. These are often pretty gentle people, even though they can look pretty rough and ready and, having nothing to lose, set about making benevolent nuisances of themselves. Idiots sometimes regard these people as thugs, but they’re not. In fact, the ‘Reclaim The Streets’ march espoused precisely the same objective as Dublin Corporation’s traffic policy!
These are entirely different groups! Do the GardaÌ not have the brains to differentiate? It seems not.
The Garda response is the old good cop, bad cop approach. There is the right-wing lock ‘em up rejectionist line of the Garda Representative Association, and the PR-conscious line of top management. A dissident who is also a young person will be regarded by the GardaÌ as a subversive, and is likely (on the evidence that we have so far) to get his or her head whacked for his troubles.
They GardaÌ are not alone in this. As the well-known architect Eamon O’Doherty has suggested, there is a fundamental policy in Irish town planning to keep people moving, never to let them stop, for fear that they might be prey to agitators.
So remind me - where is there a decent sized square in Ireland? The whole place is organised so that nobody can gather. This is in marked contrast to Mediterranean societies, where it is considered quite normal for large numbers of people to congregate, as they do in Italy’s passagiata, or Spain’s pasaje and where young people are encouraged to gather and flirt and drink cokes and coffee... and nobody is afraid of them, because they can see them!! Here, they are hassled and harried at the first sign of noise, so they shag off to secretive places where they can’t be seen, but where they are more likely to encounter and engage in anti-social behaviours.
It’s not good enough. The buck has to stop somewhere. It’s the Minister or the Commissioner.