One of the most polarising moments of the pandemic, for many people, was the infamous Garda “Jerusalema” dance video. While a section of the public absolutely loved it, there was also a large section of people who absolutely detested it. Why? Many people struggled to articulate the reasons for their dislike, but the root of it was almost certainly the contrast between the image of the Gardai in the video, dancing, swaying, and having mighty craic, on the one hand, and the reality of the Garda’s role during the pandemic on the other hand: Arresting people for walking on the beach, and that sort of thing. For general consumption, we had the friendly, dancing, garda. In real life, we had the people writing you a ticket for walking your dog on an empty beach. Whether out of love, or hate, the video has over 2 million views on Youtube:
There has, for some time, been a stark contrast in Ireland between the role of the Gardai, and the image they present of themselves. As in every society with a police force, the Garda’s role is that of an authority figure: they are, in every respect, the fist of the state. Their job is to keep the public in line, enforce law and order, apprehend criminals, break up illegal protests, protect state buildings and property, and make sure the laws handed down by the people in power are followed. That is their job.
The nature of modern communications is that this job is often presented – not without some truth – as “protecting the public”. But this is true only insofar as the laws which they enforce are designed to protect the public. A Garda enforcing a terrible law is not “protecting the public” so much as they are carrying out the will of the state. Protecting the public is an occasional happy by-product of what they do, when the laws are reasonable (as they usually are). But it is not their first duty. Every ruler in history has had a police force to keep law and order, and those police forces have done so whether the laws were just, or brutal and oppressive. The Gardai are no different in that regard.
What has any of this got to do with the new Garda uniforms?
The delivery of a new Garda Uniform to frontline operational Gardaí commences this week.
This new operational uniform will be delivered to over 13,000 uniform members of An Garda Síochána
— Garda Info (@gardainfo) February 7, 2022
The answer is that they are an extension of that conflict between the image of the Gardai, and their role.
The shirt and tie have been ditched, in favour of smart casual. No doubt, the intent is to make the image of the Gardai one that places more emphasis on how members of the force are approachable, and friendly, and, as the uniforms imply, casual. But that is not what they are or should be.
For example, it would be unthinkable that the new dress code for the Gardai would be extended to the judiciary. How would we react if we entered a court of law, and found his or her honour, sitting there in judgment, wearing a polo shirt with a crest depicting justice stitched onto the breast? How seriously would we take a court, if the registrar was sitting there in a cycling top?
The reason judges and lawyers dress as they do, in short, is to convey the image that the law is a serious and grave matter. We expect people who enforce the law to be serious, and conscious of their roles, and to uphold certain standards. That is why, after all, the Supreme Court didn’t make their own version of the Jerusalema video, replete with dancing judges: It would have made them look a bit silly and unserious.
There are those, of course, who will think this article silly, and unserious. After all, what a Garda wears has no impact on their ability to actually do their job: A fellow in a polo shirt will have the same power to put you in handcuffs as a fellow wearing a shirt and tie. This misses the point entirely: Garda work is serious business, and those conducting it should dress in a way that reflects the seriousness of what they do, as well as the authority that they bear. When something has been done a particular way for generations, it’s probably been done that way for very good reason.
A police force should be respected and, to a much greater degree than it is popular to admit, feared. A knock on the door from a member of the force should always engender a little bit of apprehension. The sight of a member of the gardai on the street should be a reminder to be on your best behaviour. That is how policing works: That is why there are always demands for “more gardai on the street”.
For the visual impact of more Gardai on the street to work, the Gardai themselves must command a little bit of fear, and a lot of respect. Since dressing them in polo shirts is less likely to elicit that response, these new uniforms are, in my view, bad.