Vincent Wall writes that the uniform cannot be hi-jacked for the purposes of an implied threat to the State
The photograph of a Garda sergeant under the bold headline “McGonigle still at large”, in this morning’s Irish Times is arresting at first glance on a number of levels, but principally because of the juxtaposition of the Garda uniform with the slightly troubling text.
On further examination, it becomes clear that the quarter page feature is an advertisement for TV3’s 'Red Rock' soap, set in a fictional Garda Station and in which the afore-mentioned fictional sergeant Brian McGonigle is a central character (and apparently missing).
It’s regrettable that some of the fiery communications from this week’s various Garda representative organisation’s Annual Conferences didn’t also carry a notice as to their "fictional" effect and a notification they shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
We have got used to Spring-time public sector trade union and employee representative conferences packaging all the ills of their sector and the sacrifices undertaken by their members for our annual delectation.
Sometimes, genuinely serious issues relating to the quality of the service these public servants can provide and the limitations of the resources available to them, are raised, though these tend to get drowned out by the overarching message about the inadequacy of pay and conditions and the warnings that something is going to have to be done about it soon.
Fair enough. We live in a democracy; employees have the right to organise, seek to improve their working conditions and, if other reasonable avenues fail, withdraw their labour despite the public and consumer inconvenience that can ensue.
Members of the Garda Siochana are different of course and while the legislative ban on their withdrawal of labour in the manner normally defined as a strike or work-to-rule action must, understandably, cause frustration at times, members signed up to that key working condition and constraint when they joined the Force.
Niall Carson / PA / The funeral procession of Garda Tony Golden passes through Blackrock village on its way to St Oliver Plunkett Church, Blackrock in Co Louth
But to leverage that frustration and the usual industrial relations arguments of any self-perceived, hard-done by sector employee group into a threat to march on the national parliament in full uniform, goes way too far and needs to addressed firmly, if not by our current crop of absent politicians then by the public whom our policemen and women serve.
The Garda uniform, which signifies and embodies the State’s pledge to protect, peacefully if possible, the security and well-being of its citizens and which has been bravely worn by the vast majority of Garda members, some of whom have paid the ultimate sacrifice for doing so, should never be hi-jacked for the purposes of an implied threat to the State even if, as in this case, that threat is purely of an industrial relations nature.
The symbolism and legacy of that uniform and the increased threat which it faces, not just from heavily armed criminals but from a less deferential society generally, has been too hard-won and is too precious to be undermined by using it a show of force on the streets of our capital city.
The recent moving images of Gardaí, marching in slow, blue, serried ranks behind the cortege of colleagues killed in the line of duty derived their power and our empathy both because of the nature of the occasion and the rarity value of such uniformed assembly.
Let us not cheapen the authority of that uniform and all it represents, either by ill-judged talking or more importantly by very ill-judged walking.