Everyone has a Garda story, about dealing with the force and coming away disappointed or perplexed at a level of service which seems almost Dickensian compared even to other elements of the public service. Yet the Gardai still have my respect. Every few months, we hear stories of unarmed Guards facing down armed bank robbers, and rescuing people from rivers or burning houses. Like the army and the fire brigade, they put themselves into the way of harm to protect others, and that means something. Even the most cynical of us, faced with a break-in downstairs with kids asleep upstairs, will reach for the phone, and be grateful when we see those blue flashing lights arrive and the Guards deal with whatever nut or junkie is threatening our families. There’s no doubt, being a Guard is not an easy job.
But to threaten a strike? There are some who say that the Guards should be no different from other public sector workers, but they are. When one joins the Guards, one knows that. We have given them the power to deprive us, their fellow citizens, of our liberty, indeed, in some cases, our lives. They are not ordinary public servants, and they know that when they join.
I know it sounds mawkish and sentimental and maybe even naive, but I take pride in the fact that in the 21st century, we still have an essentially unarmed police force that upholds the law with, for the most part, moral authority. I remember walking into my local polling station at the last general election, saying hello to the Guard on the door, and thinking that in other countries the police are there to bully the people into voting for the government. Our Guards are there to prevent that, and that means something. We obey the instructions of Guards not because we fear them, but because we need the order they instill in our society. If the Guards vote to strike illegally, that goes. Even after Donegal and the child abuse cover-ups reported by the Dublin Commission, there were Guards who did the right thing. But if they are breaking the law, then do we have any obligation to heed them? Will we obey them at checkpoints when we break the law, if they themselves are doing it too?