My colleague Gary Kavanagh popped this into our Gript group chat yesterday evening with a three word comment that bears repeating – “Hearts and Minds”:

The Gardai, no doubt, have been given a difficult job during this pandemic. For the average Garda on the streets, policing the lockdown is a thankless, arduous, unrelenting job. Establishing whether somebody is genuinely breaching the rules, or genuinely going to do their weekly shopping, can’t be an easy job. For many officers, hours of standing at checkpoints, looking in through car windows and making enquiries must be tiresome. Anecdotally, many of them are as tired of this lockdown business as the most ardent anti-lockdowner in the general public.

So, to be clear, my criticism here is not directed at the ordinary Garda. They’re just following orders.

But the force as a whole is being poorly served by its PR arm, which seems intent on portraying the average Irish police officer as a heartless Stasi-era enforcer, ruthlessly imposing the rules on mourning families and individuals taking exercise, patrolling the streets to find anybody relaxing for just one moment, and pouncing on them.

Funerals are a relatively unique part of Irish culture, and they’ve been almost uniquely affected by Lockdown. Not for us, the UK custom of leaving the deceased in a morgue for up to a month while a dignified ceremony is planned. No, in Ireland, a death is met with an outpouring of local and community support, with wakes and removals and funeral masses attended by hundreds, and families, at times, spending the days after the funeral recounting who was there, and who came to shake their hands. The instinct to attend funerals, in Ireland, is incredibly strong. It’s one of the better things about our culture.

And, for the past year, thousands of families have had to endure the shock of mourning alone, uncomforted, and unsupported. The text message, and the online message on RIP.ie, have replaced the handshake. There have been Grandparents buried while their Grandchildren were banned from the church – in one case yours truly is aware of, a dying Grandfather was unable to see his grandchildren for the last month of his life, and they were locked out of his funeral.

Obviously, funerals were always likely to be a major target of lockdown. Thousands of people shaking hands with a family at a graveside is about the surest possible way to transmit a virus around the country.

At the same time, though, the spectacle of the Gardai sending tweets warning people not to attend is hard to take. It should never be a crime to want to comfort somebody else in their moment of distress – but that’s exactly what it is, in Ireland, in 2021.

This is an example of something where the message may be correct, but the messenger’s identity sends a very strong signal. The responsibility for limiting numbers at funerals should fall to Priests and Churches, not to the Gardai.

There’s also the fact that this tweet comes just a few weeks after the Gardai decided to “entertain” the public with their (very well done) dance video, which prompted praise from some quarters, and lots of complaints to the Garda ombudsman from others:

There’s not much point arguing the toss over whether that video was a good idea or a bad idea: It’s one of those ones where you probably have an instinctive view, and that’s not going to change. Personally, I quite enjoyed it.

But there’s no doubt that it alienated a section of the public. And when you combine Gardai dancing on the Late Late show with Garda tweets banning the public from attending funerals, then you have a recipe for resentment.

Resentment, incidentally, which is being almost entirely caused by the Garda social media team, rather than ordinary Gardai on the beat.

The Gardai’s job is to police the country sensitively, and effectively. It’s not to make themselves the centre of controversy, or enforcers for political agendas.

The force is being poorly led, at the moment, and poorly served.