Buying time on another scandal: It’s time to break circle of wagons

THE 1992 Siege of Sarajevo is the longest siege of a capital city in modern history. 

It lasted nearly four years — three years, 10 months, three weeks and three days. It was hi-tech barbarism and showed civilisation is often a veneer unequal to our darkest angels. The people of Sarajevo endured persistent horrors but showed great courage.

Their heroic resilience, however, is a thing of nothing compared to the steadfastness, the stonewalling of Irish organisations that obstruct change by waiting for those who would intrude on their world to go away, to retire, to lose public office or just run out of energy. These organisations live by the boxing maxim: “The winner is not the fighter who can inflict the most pain, but the one who can endure most.”

The Catholic church once set the standard in this process. To this day it resists efforts to modernise school patronage despite declarations, presumably sincerely offered, of a willingness to accept the reality of today’s Ireland. The same tactic is in play around the national maternity hospital were institutional patience, perfected over generations, will outlast and defeat pluralist ambitions. The Law Library and the banks have shown a contented familiarity with these tactics too. One is more capable than the other in executing the corporate death’s hand tactic of defer-and-defeat.

That these organisations have the tacit, or occasionally active, support of one conservative administration after another helps preserve their interests. The emasculated Legal Service Bill and the pointless banking inquiry, chilling but ignored tribunal findings come together in a way that nourishes discontent with our unassertive, often supine parliament and our democracy is diminished.

However, An Garda Síochána are rewriting the handbook. There is not an organisation, not even the much maligned Catholic church, that has shown how effective circling the wagons can be. In the long and bloody history of British armies, the infantry formation The Square was broken just a handful of times, at Quatre Bras and Abu Klea most infamously. However, garda circle has a better record, it has never been breached — at least not by the kind of half-hearted assault any recent Government has sent to challenge it.

The recent tsunami of scandals has forced the Government’s hand again. It has asked American Kathleen O’Toole to chair a Commission on the Future of Policing though it is hard to imagine she might unearth any new options after she travels this well-harrowed ground. Before she begins her work she might visit the archivist in the Department of Justice and review the score or so earlier reports on the force and see how their recommendations were implemented. She may be disheartened if she does.

This wait-them-out dodge is no longer about the gardaí, the majority of whom are as disenchanted as anyone. It is about the capacity or willingness of our Government to recognise and deal with a cosseted culture that treats our democracy with contempt. It is time Government showed it understands its moral purpose and acted on it. It is time it showed that it has a backbone needed to break the circle of wagons.


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