A small crowd follows Garda Stephen Wade up a flight of stairs and into a large conference room with a few rows of chairs and a table of biscuits, coffee and tea.
Thirty people had registered for the event at Pearse Street Garda Station.
Fourteen showed up on this rainy Tuesday night on 15 February. Those who travelled to the info session had come from all over Ireland. One Black couple said they had journeyed up from Cork just for the event. Another Black man said he had come from Kildare.
Wade said most people who registered had tuned into an online event held the same morning, screened from Anglesea Street Garda Station in Cork.
After giving a bit of time for late-comers, Wade, leaning on a wooden podium at the front of the room, launched into his presentation and set about explaining to his mostly non-White audience what it means to work for An Garda Síochána.
When Garda Commissioner Drew Harris launched the Gardaí’s latest recruitment drive on 10 February, he spoke pointedly of how Ireland was more diverse than ever and the police service needed to reflect that.
“We are very keen to break down some of the barriers that may have been deterring people of every ethnicity, minority background, religious identity or none from applying to become a Garda,” Harris said.
One barrier that some aspiring recruits learnt of during the 15 February information session was that of age, which rules out older minorities who may – in some communities at least – be more likely to trust Gardaí and so more likely to want to join than younger generations who have had very different encounters.
Failing to Attract
Statistics, albeit incomplete, for past recruitment drives suggest that previous rounds of hiring have failed to attract significant numbers from minority backgrounds.
Of the nearly 5,200 people who applied during An Garda Síochána’s last recruitment campaign in 2019, only 96 people said they had ethnic minority backgrounds, show Public Appointment Service figures.
Just over 370 said they weren’t Irish citizens, and 1,650 didn’t mention their background, the Public Appointment Service said.
Of the 148 new gardaí who were sworn in January 2022, 21 were born outside of the Republic of Ireland, said a press release from An Garda Síochána.
They were mostly born in EU countries or England and Northern Ireland, with Brazil and Ukraine the only two non-EU countries mentioned in the Gardaí’s press release.
A Garda spokesperson didn’t say how many full-time members of the force had minority backgrounds. “The statistics requested are not available at this time.”
In 2017, only 63 Gardaí came from non-Irish backgrounds, of 13,376 sworn officers, according to data compiled by the Garda Representative Association (GRA) for a submission to the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.
The absence of recruitment from Black or Asian community was conspicuous. “For example, there is currently no member with African or Caribbean origin,” said the GRA report.
Some who’d turned up at the Pearse Street event said they were older than the cut off of 35 years and so didn’t qualify.
Shuchi Chowdhury, who’d come along with her husband, said she was disappointed that the age condition meant she couldn’t join.
“I come from a project management background, I worked with an aviation company in India,” she said, saying she thought the experience would come in handy for policing.
She trusts the guards, she said. “If I had the opportunity I would’ve applied.”
One older Black man, who mingled with the guards and took a photograph with the station’s superintendent after, said he might join as a volunteer cop. “To give back to Irish people for accommodating us.”
Younger Black Dubliners and their parents talk of a difference between generations and levels of trust with the guards, that when considered alongside the age limits, could help to explain the current lack of Black gardaí.
When Vanessa Gallagher asked her 21-year-old son if he was interested in joining the Gardaí, she was almost teasing him, she said last week in the kitchen of a friend’s home in Balbriggan.
“I wasn’t genuinely asking. I just thought it was funny when it came out just wanted to see the reaction,” she said, smiling broadly.
Gallagher’s son and her younger boy had just laughed, she says. “They just wouldn’t even dream of going into it.”
Her son associates Gardaí with negative adolescent experiences on the streets of Balbriggan, she says. “Because he faced so much abuse and racism, just walking into the shop – stop and searched, thrown to the ground.”
Sitting next to Gallagher, Samuel Banks, a friend of her son’s, said he had noticed the guards were hiring and trying to attract minorities.
“I’d seen it online, and I saw an ad on television,” said Banks, crossing his arms. But he can’t imagine applying, he says.
“It doesn’t strike me as something I want to do, especially because of my experience with the guards,” says Banks, leaning forward a little.
He and his friends have always fit a description for suspects the guards were after, he says, provoking painful experiences. He has been accosted and embarrassed in front of neighbours, he says.
“They’d say, You fit the description, Black male, black jeans, black shoes, oh, and the light jumper,” he says, looking at Gallagher as she nods.
If you argue, you risk arrest, he says. “They will try to arrest you for standing up for yourself. Obviously, nobody wants to get arrested.”
Stop-and-searches haven’t helped, he says. Neither did another incident in May 2015, says Banks, when he and his friends found a group of White locals waiting for them outside after school one day.
Some were holding bats, one guy a knife. He pulls out his phone to show a video of the fight that ensued. “They started following us,” he says, frowning, and saying that the kids tried to stand up for themselves.
The video shows one of the White guys holding a knife: “Some of them were random guys from the town,” says Banks.
Banks says that someone called the guards but they never turned up, although he and some friends were later called to the station later for questioning.
Banks says the officer who talked to him refused to hear them out and asked why they hadn’t walked away. “How can you walk away when they’re trying to attack us?” he says.
Banks says older generations are more trusting. “They aren’t the ones dealing with the guards. Because you know, we’re the ones who grew up in Ireland.”
He says among older Black people in the community, some don’t even believe that the guards mistreat teenagers. “Some of them feel like we’re the ones causing trouble, or we’re exaggerating some of the stories.”
Gallagher said she’s been in countless community meetings with the guards and non-profits to complain. “And they’re so nice, and they say, ‘We’ll look into it,’ but nothing changes,” she says.
A Garda spokesperson didn’t say how the service plans to win the trust of younger people from minority backgrounds or if they would consider increasing the age at which applicants could apply.
Pitching to Minorities
Gardaí had teamed up with the Immigrant Council of Ireland to spread the word about the information session for people of minority backgrounds at Pearse Station.
At Pearse Street Station, Wade counted the conditions to qualify. He showed a video of the physical fitness exam. He talked of the positives of the force, the opportunities there are to climb through the ranks.
Garda Piotr Worotynski stepped in to help address issues relating just to minority and migrant candidates, and to relay his experience.
Worotynski was born in Poland, he said, and moved over with his family when he was young. He’s just recently transferred to Dublin Airport from Pearse Street, he said.
Worotynski said he was meant to represent immigrants at the event, laughing and blushing. He’s White, he said, “but when you hear my accent, you’d know I’m not Irish”.
Wade said that people could join the force if they’re refugees, citizens of Ireland or EU countries, or have spent four years altogether in Ireland.
A young man from Chile asked if he could join the force on a Stamp 1G. That’s typically a graduate immigration permission but shares its name with a stamp given to spouses of skilled workers too.
“I’ve been here four years,” the man said.
Wade said he probably could but that he needed to double-check.
Those on graduate-scheme stamps eventually need a work permit to stay and work. Police officers from the rank of sergeant and below are on thelist of jobs ineligible for a work permit in Ireland.
A Garda spokesperson didn’t respond to a query asking if they’d consider working with the Department of Employment to issue a limited number of work permits for non-EU officers as a way to fast-track diversifying the force.
After the presentation at Pearse Street station, Michael McElgunn, chief superintendent with responsibility for Dublin South City, said some people from minority backgrounds are sometimes reluctant to join because of “negative experience with the police in their countries”.
Lucy Michael, a sociologist investigating police culture in the western parts of Dublin, says the line infuriates her because data doesn’t back it up.
“I have heard that line every year for the last 10 years. This is the line that the guards’ public relations officer used to put out,” she says.
Around 2011, she says, she and her colleagues created a survey to find out why migrants often avoided reporting crimes.
It had 10 options to pick from. “One of the options was because I’ve had bad experiences with police in my own country,” said Michael.
“And overall, in the years we ran that question, less than two percent of people ever chose that option,” she says.
Banks says he doesn’t buy the line. Not all those from minority backgrounds are migrants, after all. He and his friends have grown up in Ireland, he says.
There is a massive gulf between the Gardaí and young Black people, he said, and the Gardaí fail to acknowledge it. “And we have no political power.”
Fighting for improvement feels almost futile, he says, and his friends have told him to keep his head down and forget about speaking up.
If he hadn’t had such negative experiences growing up, he would probably trust the Gardaí, he says, but it’s too late now. “I just don’t see heaps of Black people joining the guards.”