IT had all the hallmarks of a veiled threat. Some hard-working, cash-strapped young gardaí might succumb to criminal elements and accept bribes to make ends meet, opined Paul Browne, a member of the Garda Representative Association(GRA)'s central executive committee, on national radio last week.
"It has to be said that, of course, one would be open to criminal elements attempting to get at young members of An Garda Síochána because of the financial straits some of them, a lot of them, find themselves in," he said.
There's just one problem. Young gardaí don't agree. "There's a huge amount of anger about what he said. A lot of young gardaí, particularly from urban areas, are very unhappy about it," said a garda source. "Some people see it as him calling into question the ethics and integrity of young officers. Believe me, he will have questions to answer from his colleagues about this."
The Department of Justice was also quick to rubbish the remarks. "The department has no evidence whatsoever which would support any such assertion and has confidence in the integrity of the gardaí as a force," it said in a statement.
Privately, department sources say they were surprised that such a sweeping suggestion was aired by a senior GRA representative. "Who says that about their members?", one source asked. "Who casts aspirations on their own members that way? The suggestion that gardaí would suddenly start taking money from criminals because of the pension levy is simply ridiculous."
Browne, a long-serving garda based in Limerick, made his ill-advised remarks after saying that some officers have been forced to apply for supplementary welfare to support themselves because of recent cuts in pay. But it's not the first time a GRA representative has made an apparent veiled threat that later backfired. In 2006, incoming GRA president John Egan said the government had one year to abandon the proposal for a garda reserve force and deliver the long-promised extra resources for gardaí. "If they do not, we will be waiting in the long grass," came the ominous, headline-grabbing threat to then justice minister Michael McDowell. It later transpired to be an empty threat.
While the number of reserve recruits has been slowly but steadily rising, the public remains apathetic as to whether the reserve force makes any real impact. But the Garda Reserve is undoubtedly here to stay. "Quite simply, the Garda Reserve as a voluntary force works," said the Justice source. "There haven't been any issues we're aware of with gardaí refusing to work with reservists. The GRA seems to have majorly backed down on that one." The GRA's plans to scupper the reserve force by refusing to cooperate with it, and even legally challenge it, is one of its most high-profile failures. McDowell's response to the GRA's vocal opposition was to chastise the association as one might scold a child: gardaí should stay out of politics, he warned, as the force has always traditionally done. But McDowell was wrong too. History shows the GRA has a long tradition of being highly politicised, even militant, at times. And in the past 15 months, under the presidency of Michael O'Boyce, the association has been very political – but it has picked its battles wisely.
In the early 1990s, a massive internal row within the biggest garda representative body split the organisation. The row was principally over a pay deal for gardaí but also involved a clash of personalities and arguments over internal procedures. It climaxed in 1994 when a GRA conference broke up in disarray because of the arguments between the factions but it was resolved by 1997. "It taught us a lot about how to do our business," says GRA president O'Boyce. "And we became a better and stronger organisation as a result." As if to prove their unity, gardaí began its "blue flu" campaign the following year.
In May 1998, 'blue flu' resulted in gardaí up to the rank of inspector taking organised sick leave on the same day to compensate for the fact they do not have the right to strike. Members of the Emergency Response Unit and the National Surveillance Unit were allowed to work on a special operation, resulting in the gardaí foiling Real IRA plans to hold up a security van at Ashford, Co Wicklow. One raider, Ronan Mac Lochlainn, of Ballymun, Dublin, was shot dead in the confrontation.
"On the first day, 92% of our members participated and 98% of our members took part the second day – it was a huge success," adds O'Boyce. "I was a supporter of that action then but it is not something that would happen now under my presidency. We are in the 21st century and our issues over cuts in pay, conditions or how the government is running the country calls for a 21st-century solution."
The modern solution, it seems, is to take finance minister Brian Lenihan to the High Court, a first for the association. The GRA has taken a judicial review of the finance minister's decision to introduce the pension levy and will tell the court on 16 October why the force should be exempt from it. "The pension levy has resulted in an 8% to 9% pay-cut for our members. Some of us, who are long-serving gardaí, can absorb that," adds O'Boyce. "But for many of our younger members who got mortgages at the height of the boom on houses that are now worthless, this is crippling them. I'm amazed how some of them are coping."
But many rank-and-file gardaí, as well as senior members, are choosing to leave the force rather than accept recent developments. Some senior officers are quitting to avoid being hit with a threatened tax on retirement lump sums as well as the pension levy while younger members have been canvassed and lured away by police forces in Britain. The mass exodus comes at a time when the government has been criticised on the rise in gangland and serious crime. National specialist units – many of them tasked with combating organised crime – are being particularly badly hit.
Last year, just under €621m was paid out in salaries to the force's 14,500 members, making the average salary almost €43,000 a year. A further €112m extra was paid out in overtime.
Because the majority of officers remain at garda rank – there is only scope for a minority to climb the career ladder and earn more – a range of allowances are available to gardaí with extra payments for everything from boot allowance (over €3m last year) to night-duty allowance (€47m last year) to the most controversial of all – rent allowance – just under €59m was paid to gardaí last year towards their accommodation costs.
But it's not just money gardaí are concerned about these days. In February, up to 2,000 off-duty gardaí gathered at Parnell Square, Dublin, and took part in an historic public protest and marched to Dáil Eireann. While the pension levy was the catalyst for the protest, the GRA demanded new legislation to require financial institutions to write down 20% of the personal value of mortgages, and "humanity" from the banks to allow people to opt out of fixed-term mortgages without a penalty being imposed.
For the first time in its history, the GRA was protesting about issues other than those that directly affected the force – the real protest was against the government's softly-softly approach to dealing with financial institutions involved in controversy. "It was a first for us, yes. But I don't like to use the word politicised," continues O'Boyce. "It suggests we have political affiliations, which we do not."
Quite cleverly, the GRA became attuned to the mood of the nation and its sense of unrest and anger towards government. "The march was a reaction to the times we're living in. As we see it, it was the first time the government ever used the tactic of pitting the public and private sector against each other," says O'Boyce. "As the scandals from the financial institutions emerged, the government targeted not just gardaí but many of the lowest-paid workers. Our members were angry at what was happening to our country."
The association seems emboldened in recent months and it has capitalised on the government's failure to communicate with the public. If it loses its High Court action against the finance minister – the most likely outcome – it won't be the end of the fight. There's talk abroad of a mass redundancy and even a withdrawal of labour. "If our judicial review fails, I'll call a
special conference. All the options will be looked at then," says O'Boyce. "I can totally rule out another 'blue flu', but if we're not listened to, we'll be looking at other forms of agitation."
So how worried should the government be? It's hard to know how much support exists within the force for a mass redundancy. But the gardaí are certainly angry and becoming angrier. Under O'Boyce's leadership, rank-and-file garda gripes have been aired and have been well received by the public because, crucially, the force has empathised with others in financial trouble and been outspoken about the unethical behaviour of several banks.
If the GRA loses its High Court action, it is unlikely its campaign will cease. "O'Boyce is clever fella, not to be underestimated," said one superintendent. "He pushes the boat out to get his message across but is careful to never go too far."
In March, the GRA launched a graphic poster campaign depicting gardaí who have received facial injuries in the line of duty as part of its campaign against the pension levy. Dismissed by some as a cynical shock tactic, it nonetheless had the desired effect in terms of widespread media coverage.
To date, the GRA has held its fire in reaction to the Bord Snip Nua report, which suggested that half of the country's 703 garda stations be closed and sold. But a detailed reaction to the report's recommendations will shortly be published in the force's magazine, the Garda Review, and the GRA is also looking at its legal options should the government implement Colm McCarthy's recommendations.
"That report is an economist's report, it looks at the cost of everything rather than its worth," says O'Boyce. "We're worth far more than we are recognised in that report."
Salaries €620,904,182 (14,500 gardaí)
A sample of extra payments received by gardaí on top of their salaries and overtime:
Rent allowance €58,945,817 (approx €4,065 per annum per garda)
Gaeltacht allowance €1,196,817
(Gardaí based in Gaeltacht areas receive extra pay for carrying out their duties in the Irish language)
Uniform allowance €3,039,572 (to maintain their supplied uniforms)
Boot allowance €2,286,857 (to maintain their supplied boots)