Comment: This peace is political

I don’t think Limerick is “looking into the abyss as a city” unless the state gives its local gardaí more funding. I don’t think more guards will “help keep communities safe” there. And I don’t think “policing plans” will solve “once and for all” intermittent episodes of violence in a rural part of the county. Some people have said otherwise.

Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan in October 2020 asked Micheál Martin “to ensure that additional resources including gardaí are deployed as a matter of urgency to deal with these thugs”, referring to drug dealers in Limerick city. Fianna Fáil minister of state Niall Collins made his request to Drew Harris, saying, “To keep our communities safe the garda commissioner must ensure that there is overtime provided and adequate transport not just in my constituency but in the wider Limerick,” after seeing footage of teenagers letting off fireworks and fighting and damaging cars in Newcastlewest. Fine Gael councillor Adam Teskey late last year convened a meeting of TDs, councillors and gardaí to try to establish a policing strategy that would end gang violence in Rathkeale, telling the Irish Mirror that “armed responses from gardaí” needed to be part of this strategy.

I don’t agree with these suggestions or what they imply, that increased garda funding will, to speak in the same hysteria as Quinlivan, pull Limerick city back from “an abyss”, or that more gardaí will somehow stop teenagers being teenagers in Newcastlewest, or that armed gardaí would be effective in Rathkeale. “The expectation that police can affect crime levels,” as Maynooth University’s Ian Marder wrote in The Journal this week, “corrupts both the way we measure police success, and how the police see themselves. It creates perverse incentives to focus on low-level, easily solved crime.” But the men who have said these things presumably did so in good faith. Some of their respective constituencies must appreciate hearing them say these things.

What would these people think of the garda resources deployed in Limerick city on 17 May, 2021? What does that night tell us about whom An Garda Síochána represents and the peace it upholds?

A group of Debenhams staff had been on strike. The company at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic had shut its Irish operations and made about 1,000 of its mostly women workers redundant. Debenhams also refused to honour a 2016 agreement that would’ve given these workers two weeks’ pay per year of service, along with other statutory entitlements. A liquidator had been appointed.

The workers refused to accept this and took action, blocking liquidator KPMG from removing stock from Debenhams warehouses. The workers saw this valuable stock, such as sunglasses, perfume and makeup, as a means through which KPMG could pay them what they were due. KPMG – a company that in 2022 recorded revenues of $35 billion – saw this stock as a means for profit.

On that May night back in 2021 in Limerick city, having been on strike for the previous 400 days, 100 Debenhams workers were confronted by about 50 gardaí along with the Garda Public Order Unit. Part of the garda efforts involved putting up steel barriers in an attempt to stop the workers from obstructing the entrance to the warehouse. A garda spokesperson explaining their presence said, “An Garda Síochána attended a premises on O’Connell Street, Limerick as required in the execution of a High Court Order on 18 May, 2021.”

They attended and they attended in numbers, in a city where, if we are to listen to Maurice Quinlivan, Niall Collins and Adam Teskey, communities need garda help but can’t get it. When KPMG needed a court order enforced however the gardaí could oblige, dragging peaceful members of the public away from the target of their protest, the people of Limerick who supposedly need the help and protection of An Garda Síochána. The Debenhams workers and the gardaí were on opposing sides and the workers prevailed, stopping KPMG from securing the stock.

The kind of peace the gardaí tried to uphold that night was political. We’re not supposed to talk about these politics. The work of Dublin artist Adam Doyle, known as Spicebag, made these politics public this week.  

'Overseer, overseer, overseer, overseer'

For me the piece, which depicted a famine-era eviction with contemporary gardaí present, represented the historical continuity between organs of the state, both in the literal and academic sense, as well as the same continuity between the forces that conduct, enable, oversee, attend at and benefit from evictions. There’s a continuity too between the people subject to evictions, people for whom the identities, functions and associations of those doing the evicting is inconsequential when compared with the results of eviction itself. To represent these continuities in a piece of art shouldn’t be controversial. It's been some time since rapper KRS–One in his Sound of da Police asked us to consider the historical link between plantation overseers and members of US police forces. “Overseer, overseer, overseer, overseer / Officer, officer, officer, officer / Yeah, officer from overseer / You need a little clarity? Check the similarity.”

The eviction depicted in Spicebag’s work occurred in Dublin city centre’s North Frederick Street in 2018, which was attended by balaclava-clad members of the Garda Public Order Unit. Gardaí at the scene were responding to a court order to secure the property from members of activist group Take Back the City, which had occupied it. The peace was breached at this eviction.

A protestor said to gardaí present, “Fuck off you criminals – you’re a disgrace.” They arrested him. Yesterday in the Dublin District Court he was found guilty of breaching the peace and ordered to make a €1,000 donation to charity. The peace he was found guilty of breaching is the peace that the gardaí defend, that which considers the dereliction of dormant properties during a housing crisis peaceful, that which considers the evictions of tenants into homelessness at the request of landlords peaceful.

Though it’s the peace that modern Ireland was founded on, it’s not a state of peace for all. States of peace never are. “There will never, ever be peace without justice. There will never be calmness without accountability. There will never be order without fairness. So when I hear the authorities call for peace and call for calmness and call for order, I say, yes, but it’s not the absence of tension. It’s got to be the presence of that justice and accountability and that fairness,” as academic Cornel West has said.

A depiction of one aspect of Irish peace and what it’s built on, the court-ordered garda protection of financial assets, inspired both reflection and apoplexy this week. The Irish Independent’s Fionnan Sheahan, a picture of lank obsolescence and emblematic of those condemning the work, in a Virgin Media television appearance quivered about “politically motivated” art.

Rather than indulge this kind of bedwetting, we'd be better served by dropping the pretence that politics doesn’t motivate the kind of peace upheld by An Garda Síochána.

Eoghan McNeill

Eoghan McNeill