Detective Garda Donoghue was gunned down as he moved to intervene in a robbery. Not yet having drawn his own weapon he seems to have stood little chance. His colleagues are said to be trying to establish ‘if subversives, dissidents, or members of a criminal gang were responsible for the raid.’ He is the first Garda to be gunned down on duty in seventeen years although other members of the force have died in violent incidents, on occasion losing their lives while trying to stop fleeing vehicles.
Anne McCabe, the wife of Garda Jerry McCabe killed by the IRA in 1996, sent her condolences to the family of the dead man. She commented that 'it is 17 years later on and history is repeating itself. We all thought those dark days were left behind.' As decent and humane as this sentiment is the harsh facts remain. Dark days are an omnipresent in police life. It is the nature of the profession. The darkness might not always snuff out the light of life but it will forever be there. Did such days not exist there would arguably be little need for policing.
Gardai, like police officials elsewhere, will continue to be killed in the line of duty. In some senses An Garda Siochana is fortunate to have gone so long without this type of fatality. They are no safer from the callous indifference of those who kill them than police in Manchester where two young female officers lost their lives in a violent attack last year. They are placed at the dark coal front and occasionally take the ultimate hit doing their job.
The gratuitous wilfulness of last night’s killing where no quarter was given can only fuel outrage and amplify calls for the judiciary to be more punitive, with a concomitant deleterious effect on civil liberties: less rights for the public and more powers for the police, a precarious asymmetry for any society to straddle.
Most armed robbers seem to have the sense to scarper before seriously harming anybody. But if they go out with arms whatever their intent or accompany those that do, they can never rule out the possibility that those arms might be used with fatal consequences. And if a gun is fired at a Garda's head the intent is not to scare or injure.
There is nowhere in Ireland today where it is okay to gun down members of the police, neither here in the South or in the North where killing cops was long endorsed during the years of political turmoil by one of the main political parties in the Stormont Executive: a situation which served to weaken the moral opprobrium towards killing police, even those doing the most necessary and politically neutral societal tasks. That opprobrium has long existed and has never abated in the South where there remains a widespread identification with the Gardai that I never witnessed with police in the North. When a member of the RUC was killed I never had the experience that ‘one of ours had been killed.’ This hostility seems to have diluted in recent years but back then the force was something alien. Down here things are very different. When a Garda is killed he is very much regarded as our own. In the North safe refuge was often available for those who killed police. In the South there is no hiding place, no ambigutiy. Try describing a Garda as a ‘legitimate target’ and the response will be as if you just called a black person a ‘lazy smelly nigger.’
The type of killing carried out last night is bereft of all justification. It comes without the mitigation that could often be proffered up North during its conflict years. For all their shortcomings the police are democratically constituted by society. It is virtually impossible to conceptualise a reasonably safe society without police. A police force, despite its coercive function and arguably because of it, is as indispensable to any society as the medical profession. It makes no more sense to shoot police officers in a democratic society than it would to shoot doctors.
Any police force in a democratic society may be troublesome, even abusive, if we fall foul of it. We may disagree with the police, often oppose their methods, and protest against them, feeling their power is draconian and their accountability deficient. They may even be legitimately regarded as political opponents because they stand on the opposite side of the barricade from the radicals. But the notion that killing police is some sort of solution that adds anything to society is a heinous fiction.
The type of police force we should face as citizens is one where they instil in us the same level of apprehension as would the tax man, something maybe to be avoided in the interests of privacy but never to be killed.