Darren Coventry-Howlett is kind. He speaks earnestly on the phone with the tone of someone trained in the art of active listening.
Calmly and professionally, Coventry-Howlett responds as I tell him my own experience with the Garda. He makes sure to punctuate our conversation with periodic expressions of sympathy.
“That’s not a positive experience,” he commiserates more than once. “Nobody wants to feel like they’re going around in circles,” he soothes, another time.
Coventry-Howlett works for the Garda Racial, Intercultural, and Diversity Office. He is, from what I can tell, uniquely skilled in communicating with victims of racist harassment.
But when I press him on the Garda’s track record of poor engagement on racially motivated incidents, Coventry-Howlett tells me he’s not allowed to talk with me about that.
An Garda Síochana’s complex relationship with ethnic minority communities in Ireland is well documented.
In 2001, the same year its intercultural office was set up, an Amnesty International survey found that only 14 percent of respondents felt racist incidents were taken seriously by gardaí.
More recent figures, from the European Network Against Racism Ireland (ENAR Ireland), suggest that five in six people affected do not report racially motivated incidents to the Garda –for a variety of reasons associated with effectiveness and follow-through.
Shane O’Curry, director of ENAR Ireland, believes that such failings could bring about “a situation where we are entrenching racial division”. The scope of such division is potentially inter-generational, he says.
O’Curry notes that there is a kind of “re-victimisation” that occurs when an incident is not handled to an acceptable standard.
In my own case, after calling my local Garda station to report that a man with a baseball bat had verbally harassed me near my home, I was told someone would be along to speak with me within the hour.
No one came that day, and I was left feeling disappointed and embarrassed.
Last week, when I entered my local Garda station to chat more about this incident, a young officer asked me why I hadn’t followed up on my complaint at the time. I expressed that I had felt too disappointed and unmotivated to pursue it further.
“Somebody should respond to the call. Period,” Sgt Dave McInerney later told me over the phone. “Something like that is high-priority. Really high-priority.”
Sgt McInerney has worked in the Racial, Intercultural, and Diversity Office for the last 16 years, and explains that incidents like mine are exactly why the role of ethnic liaison officer exists.
According to Garda documents, there are 250 trained ethnic liaison officers tasked with assisting “in the investigation of racist incidents” and ensuring “appropriate support mechanisms are available to members of ethnic minorities”.
When I ask Coventry-Howlett why he thinks nobody came to the scene to speak to me, he tells me that he believes the time of the year, late October, could account for the Garda no-show. Halloween is a busy time for law enforcement, he explained.
While this points to basic issues of staffing and resource, this also raises a question of the institution’s structural capability to adequately address racially motivated incidents.
With 250 trained officers specifically placed to “investigate racist incidents”, I am surprised that I was not contacted by my local ethnic liaison officer, or at least transferred to them during my initial complaint.
Speaking with Coventry-Howlett and Sgt McInerney, I do get the sense that these individuals care very deeply and personally about the experiences of ethnic minority communities.
Sgt McInerney tells me that he wants to work toward a Garda that serves everyone. Unfortunately, the Garda’s current structure may simply be incompatible with that dream.
“I know the Garda are understaffed, that there are issues around garda overtime and being given material resources,” says O’Curry.
“I think that the Garda racial and diversity office is like putting a Band-Aid across a gaping wound. I really feel for the two or three staff they have in that tiny … office. (…) In many ways the racial diversity office is a fig leaf to cover the institution’s inability to deal with questions of race and inequality,” he said.
Two clear solutions exist.
First, the Garda can reaffirm a commitment to emerging communities by engaging in hiring practices, across ranks, that adequately reflect all the communities they seek to represent.
Secondly, there could be a push for clearly defined hate-speech legislation in Ireland that includes earmarked funding for law enforcement. This, so that the Garda can streamline reporting and victim-support mechanisms.
O’Curry advises that there are also ways that victims of racist incidents can re-empower themselves. He suggests finding a way to not keep silent about what they have experienced.
He also urges these individuals to join anti-hate groups in Ireland. Incidents can be reported at ireport.ie, as can notes about the quality of one’s experience with the Garda.