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Good Gardai and Bad Laws

Smokers can have no problem with the Gardai. When the smoking ban was brought into law (in 2004) they were the first to announce that they wouldn’t enforce it. And they didn’t either. At the time it was all played down lest anyone should feel there was anything other than overwhelming support for the unwarranted new law. Perhaps the authors of the ban imagined riot police raiding pubs up and down the country, using their batons to herd smokers into paddy wagons. If you remember, the fine for smoking in the pub was (and is) €3,000. You could see how (at three grand a pop) there would be plenty of money to be collected from a paddy wagon full of dazed smokers. It could even fund further bans.

But that didn’t happen. Indeed I suspect that the average Garda treats the average smoker with due respect, knowing as they do that the smoker is breaking no law. This week then as the Gardai were preparing to go on strike for the first time in the Nation’s history, I was solidly behind them. Successive Governments have relied on the notion that the Gardai have no right to go on strike. They have either bullied or ignored the force until things could not go on as they are. Through the media, we began to hear of new recruits living in their cars outside their stations, starting their service on €21K a year (before tax) at a time when the average Dublin flat costs €1,400 a month (or €16.8K pa).

I mention all of this because I met two of their number in a pub during the week. They were in full uniform and having a coffee break so as they passed by, I wished them luck with the strike. They stopped for a chat which was as wide-ranging as it was informative. One male, the other female – both adamant that the strike had to succeed. I sympathized with them having to confront a whole new viciousness on the streets and suggested it must be demoralizing when, having done the best job you can, people still grumble and criticize. They, in turn, said that a lot of their role feels like useless, time-wasting which means that when a deserving cause phones 999, there may be no Gardai available to respond. And you just know whenever that happens, the whole country hears about it on Joe Duffy.

When they left, they left me thinking about what they said. The ratio of Gardai to the civilian population is one Garda to every 350 of us. One in four is female so for every 1,400 civilians there are only three Gardai and one Bean Garda. What if two of those are out in the squad car looking to catch an adult smoking in their car with a child present?

Another zealot came out of the woodwork this week demanding a law which would prevent anyone born in the millennium from being able to buy tobacco. If that went ahead a third Garda could be out patrolling outlets to establish whether anyone under seventeen had been served tobacco. But having ID on your person is not compulsory. That leaves the fourth Garda back at the station answering the phones. If something important did come up and the squad car needed to be rushed away from its smoking duties, then you can be sure that some busybody would be on with Joe the next day breathlessly relaying the tale of a Mother smoking with a young child in her car and not a Garda in sight.

That is the problem with unenforceable laws. The rank and file members see and experience some hideous things in any week so for them, smoking with a child present is way down the list. I believe that that they will still respond to serious crime but the sense of pointlessness coming from the two fine members I met on Friday made me sorry for them. Morale is low at a time when politicians are now talking about hiding alcohol in shops behind a curtain. Aside from how insulting that is to all responsible adults, who will be relied on to enforce that stupid law? The two I met were heading back to patrol the beat on foot because that’s what citizens have been crying out for. Would you prefer instead that they did the rounds of supermarkets checking to see if booze curtains are pulled all the way closed?

Me neither!