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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Rolling News A garda in the riot of Dublin, Thursday.

John O'Brien Enough of the Minister and Commissioner's magical thinking around law and order

The retired detective chief superintendent shares his insights on policing, riots and the rule of law.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 24th 2023, 11:10 PM

THE UNSPEAKABLE HORROR of the attack on innocent school children in Dublin yesterday sends a shiver down the spines of all right-thinking people.

This terrible attack was unprecedented, happening as it did in broad daylight in the centre of the capital city. The rioting which followed was unique in one respect only, in that it was an attack on a crime scene.

In all other respects, it is reasonable to assume that there is clear evidence that a group or groups exist who embrace a radical agenda of disruption and mayhem. There has been ample evidence of such activity and this so called “far right” also attracts a cohort of individuals who are simply bent on destruction and hooliganism.


Serious questions face the “powers that be”, namely the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner. There has been a discourse involving these powerful figures which I would best describe as Magical Thinking or Fantasy Policing. They would have us believe that there is no crisis in Garda morale, no crisis in recruitment or retention, that recruiting 50-year-olds would help solve the problem. Indeed, this same fantasy is communicated by the Policing Authority.

The question of capacity comes to mind when considering the practical side of public order operational policing. We are talking about the ability to maintain a high standard of order and control on the streets of our capital city and the country generally.

Let me be absolutely clear, I have nothing but praise and respect for gardaí who confronted the twin challenges of the knife attack and the subsequent riots. The questions relate to the role of Minister and Commissioner, they are the figures of authority, they are the ones in ultimate charge and the buck stops at their doors. Did they read the signs of emerging catastrophes and if so, did they act accordingly? I believe they both have very serious questions to answer.

Does the Garda Síochána have the technical public order capacity to deal with serious street disturbance? It is evident that they do not. This is not a difficult question to answer because if it exists, it would consist of a strong core of well-trained and equipped gardaí allied to a general equipping of front-line operational officers with protective equipment, like helmets. It is obvious that this capacity does not exist.

The fundamental question of public order expertise at the most senior garda level has to be in doubt.

In the aftermath of the disturbances, it is also necessary to take a wider perspective and consider the strategic issues and historical experience.

Water cannon and other tactics

I have previously written that policing is fundamentally a political process, even in circumstances where the police service as an institution is relatively independent of government and accountable to the law. The specific actions of ‘the police’ as an institution involve the exercise of power, relate to liberty and freedom, and rely upon authority, all of which inevitably raise political questions.

During my service, I was directly involved in public order training. I studied the topic at the Scarman Centre for Public Disorder, Leicester. I also made an analysis of “our” preparedness and the findings were clear and are perhaps as relevant today.
There was generally a poor grasp of tactics with a scant exercise of discipline in stressful situations. The necessary flexible interplay between people, equipment and tactics was not present.

irish-police-use-water-cannon-to-subdue-protesters-gathered-outside-phoenix-park-where-the-ceremony-for-eu-enlargement-took-place-earlier-today Alamy Stock Photo Gardaí use water cannon to subdue protesters at the Phoenix Park, where the ceremony for EU enlargement took place in May, 2004. Alamy Stock Photo

One of the main lessons that I learned during my service and my study was the need to keep the policing element physically separate from the rioters where possible. Hand-to-hand combat results in many unattended consequences, e.g. propaganda for the rioters, injuries for police and others. Intervention should be limited to specific actions to arrest the targeted criminals.

This strategy works when the policing element uses protected vehicles, including water cannon. I note that in light of yesterday’s rioting, An Garda Síochána has now requested support from the PSNI in the form of two water cannon. This is the right decision and is an arrangement that goes back to 2004 and which was initiated by me.

The use of water cannon can appear controversial to some, but it is high time a level of pragmatism and common sense were employed here, given the severity of the violent disorder last night. 

I have always maintained that using water cannon on a violent, aggressive mob is more likely to bring a peaceful outcome than full engagement between members of the force and thugs on the ground. The harrowing footage of lone gardaí last night ambushed and fighting for their lives while surrounded, would bear that out. 

Love Ulster riots

I base my observation on being present at many riots during my career, including the British Embassy in 1972 and the British Embassy in 1981. One also has to consider what happened during the Love Ulster riots in 2006 at O’Connell Street.

There was significant success when tactics were changed in 2006. The EU Enlargement Event held in Dublin was attended by the Heads of State and Government from Europe. A large number of protestors, at least two thousand, were resolved to disrupt the ceremonies.

A march to a Farmleigh House reception became a flash point when the protesters tried to force entry. This march was halted on the Navan Road with well thought out tactics including the use of water cannon. In short, one has to learn from historical experience, particularly the positive.

00087408_87408 Rolling News Love Ulster riots in Dublin City Centre in 2006. Rolling News

Bottles and missiles were thrown with some hand-to-hand combat. The Garda Public Order Unit came forward and engaged the demonstrators. Some of the demonstrators managed to get through the front line but not in any serious numbers. It was obvious after 15 minutes, that further action should be taken to avoid serious hand-to-hand fighting and possible injury. A water cannon was deployed and slowly the water jets had the desired effect. Nobody was seriously injured, no bloody heads and no propaganda for the nasties.

There is a fundamental rule in policing a democracy. The primary responsibility of the Garda Síochána is to maintain public peace on the streets to preserve life and prevent disorder. Failure to do that undermines democracy and if unchecked undermines the State itself. Self-evidently, a root and branch evaluation is required of leadership and tactics.

John O’Brien is a retired Detective Chief Superintendent, in An Garda Síochána. He is formerly head of the International Liaison Protection section in Garda HQ, National Head of Interpol and Europol. He was Divisional Chief Superintendent in the Louth/Meath and Laois/Offaly Divisions. A former Superintendent, Detective Inspector, Uniform Inspector and Sergeant. He is the holder of an MSc in Public Order Studies. He is the author of three books, A Question of Honour, Politics and Policing (2020) and Securing the Irish State (2022). The Troubles Come South 2023.