The office on the fourth floor of a gated building at the end of Ely Place is what Superintendent Seán Fallon calls the nerve centre of community policing.
In its small conference room, four wooden tables are pushed together, chairs are dotted around, and a television screen is stuck to a wall.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Fallon walks into the room, pulls up a chair and opens a document holder.
In February, Fallon became superintendent at the Garda National Community Engagement Bureau. That means that, within the bureau, he supervises the Garda National Diversity and Integration Unit.
Fallon took on the role at the time asylum seekers, many single men, had been left stranded in the city without accommodation, exposed to harassment from anti-immigrant activists.
Meanwhile, a Hate Crime Bill has passed the first stage of Seánad debates and is moving onwards. If signed into law, it would give Gardaí clearer grounds to investigate incitement to hatred against minority groups, including online hate speech.
These are two of the thorny issues that Fallon has to play a role in navigating. But he is hopeful, he says.
His hope for the diversity and integration unit is that when his time in charge is up, more people from diverse backgrounds will have faith in the Gardaí, he says.
“For me, it’s if, in five years’ time, we surveyed our new communities, is that level of trust there?”
The Garda National Community Engagement Bureau looks after all things community-related, says Fallon.
“That includes community policing, crime prevention, diversity and offender management,” he said.
Paula Hillman is the bureau’s assistant commissioner. There’s a chief superintendent under her, and they, along with Fallon, work with two inspectors.
“The diversity unit has a dedicated inspector and three dedicated sergeants,” said Fallon.
Fallon says the national bureau is working to empower local divisions to have more autonomy and prioritise managing community issues, like sensitivities around policing diverse communities.
“One small bureau here cannot possibly service the diversity needs across the organisation. It’s just not sustainable,” said Fallon. “We want to have a degree of self-sufficiency in all divisions.”
Failure to draw
As proof of progress for his bureau’s vision, Fallon plucks the example of an increase in the number of Garda diversity officers across the country.
Previously called Garda Ethnic Liaison Officers, they are trained to actively engage with members of ethnic-minority communities in their local areas, address their concerns and establishing trust.
Fallon said he doesn’t know how many of these officers are from diverse backgrounds themselves.
An Garda Síochána has struggled to diversify its workforce.
On 16 June, Fallon said he’d asked for the ethnicity figures from the latest Garda recruitment campaign. But “we don’t have it at hand”.
A spokesperson for the Public Appointments Service said it can’t share the ethnicity data of the Gardaí’s 2023 recruitment campaign because the process is still active.
A Garda press release from April 2022 did show an increase in the percentage of, and real number of, applicants from minority backgrounds during its February 2022 recruitment call, compared to the one it did in 2019.
Of the more than 11,000 applicants, more than 1,300 people said they were from other varied backgrounds, the release says, like other White backgrounds, Asian, Black, or mixed.
(A little more than 8,500 said they were White Irish, and nearly 1,200 didn’t give their ethnicity.)
Fallon, the superintendent, says there have been some improvements in that there are more people from diverse backgrounds in the force now, and his bureau works to forge relationships with minority guards. “Just to see their kind of lived experiences.”
Gardaí from the rank of sergeant and below and garda community support officers are also on the current list of jobs ineligible for work permits.
That means non-EEA migrants on certain immigration statuses can’t apply to join.
Fallon says that’s a matter for Gardaí’s human resource unit.
But personally, he said, he’d rather see growth in the number of applications from those immigrants who do have the right papers to work for the Gardaí.
He’s not sure if it’s immigration statuses are stopping people from joining, he says. “If you look at the current demographics, is that a real inhibitor?”
Off the record
Young Irish Black people and migrants of colour have talked in the past about how negative encounters with the Gardaí – like regular stop-and-searches – have eroded trust and made them fearful of the guards.
That’s why they don’t want to work for An Garda Síochána, they have said.
Gardaí does not currently know how many street searches it does, so it doesn’t record either the backgrounds of people most regularly stopped.
Fallon says he’s unsure about recording that data. It might ramp up hate, he says. “I think we need to be careful here.”
He can see the benefits of logging “unique identifiers”, like people’s ethnicity, he said. That’s in step with his bureau’s aim for an evidence-based approach to policing.
To find out if Black people are disproportionately stopped on the streets for example, said Fallon. “But then we have people who have prejudices, maybe against certain groups, who now have these figures.”
It might backfire, said Fallon. “Do you run the risk of kind of over-stigmatising these certain groups? What are we going to achieve?”
“I’m not saying I’m against it. I’m just not sure what exactly is the goal we will achieve,” he said.
Lucy Michael, a sociologist who is researching policing of ethnic-minority groups in Dublin, says that argument isn’t in step with best practice.
In 2007, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), a Council of Europe body, said member states should clearly define and prevent racial profiling.
“Which Ireland has not done,” says Michael.
“ECRI also recommended to all EU states in 2007 that they collect ethnic and other equality data on all relevant policing activities,” she said.
Things like identity checks, vehicle stop-and-searches, personal searches, home or premises searches and raids, she said.
“And on the outcome of those, to monitor unequal outcomes. This is the established standard in Europe for equality in policing practices,” Michael said.
As for what the goal is, the 2007 ECRI report says that by gathering this data, the police show goodwill and readiness to listen to complaints of minority groups.
“If no racial profiling is established, this can help to re-establish or consolidate confidence and decrease the risk that the police may be subject to aggressive behaviour,” it says.
Fallon looks at a video showing a group of people passing through a laneway on the grounds of the International Protection Office (IPO) on Mount Street and marching past homeless asylum seekers pitched up there. He frowns.
They shout at the asylum-seekers, telling them they’re not welcome. At one point, a young man flips a lit cigarette in the direction of asylum-seekers.
That was Saturday 13 May, a day after another crowd had burned tents and belongings of new asylum seekers who had pitched up at Sandwith Street as they waited for more secure shelter, along with an asylum-seeking member of the Revolutionary Housing League (RHL), a campaign group focused on occupying vacant properties.
The Saturday crowd had gathered as part of a protest against the Hate Crime Bill, organised by the Irish Freedom Party. Some of the protestors made their way from Custom House to Mount Street.
A garda can be seen in the video walking in front of them.
At the Custom House, Michael Leahy, chair of the Irish Freedom Party, said the events at Pearse Street – off which lies Sandwith Street – showed the Irish spirit and readiness to fight for liberty.
“That’s what we need in every town and county up and down this country,” said Leahy.
After the protest, a Garda van spent the night outside the IPO offices to guard the rough-sleeping asylum seekers.
Ten days later, at a meeting with the Policing Authority, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said that he wants to make sure that asylum seekers know that the police are there to protect them.
“We have international treaty responsibilities to those who arrive here seeking international protection. We have those legal obligations,” he said. An Garda Síochána has a moral responsibility, too, Harris said.
He said that people do have the right to protest peacefully too, though.
A protest rights handbook from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) says people don’t have the right to protest if they’re calling for violence or stoking hatred.
It says the Gardaí can limit the right to protest in some cases, including to protect individuals or groups from harm.
Couldn’t Gardaí have moved the 13 May protesters away from Mount Street, citing those grounds? Fallon says that’s difficult to navigate.
“There’s a balance to be had, in terms of right to assembly and freedom of expression, versus the right to, obviously, to keep people safe,” he said, adjusting his Garda tie pin.
That doesn’t mean the guards should always hang back at anti-immigrant protests, he says.
But sometimes, protesters may want to provoke a negative reaction from its officers, says Fallon. Which “you know, fans the flames of various kinds of agendas”.
Officers should gauge every situation based on what’s happening on the ground and pick the best approach, Fallon says. “I think it’s a prudent approach that you have to take each case on its own merits.”
The role of the diversity unit in this, should be to turn and listen to migrant advocacy groups and non-profits who interact with immigrants and understand their issues better, says Fallon.
“What we’re constantly trying to achieve here is have that engagement with bodies who may have the reach that we don’t have,” he said.
The Hate Crimes Bill
Fallon says he’s not too worried about inexperience when the Hate Crime Bill turns into law because the force is experienced in dealing with cases of hate crimes since rolling out its own online hate-crime reporting portal.
A recent report from the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR) – the upshot of accounts of racist harassment and crime submitted to its iReport platform – said that confidence in the Gardaí among ethnic-minority groups remains low, and victims are reluctant to report racist crimes.
It reported similar findings last year, also citing victims who’d said the guards didn’t show up when contacted or didn’t follow up.
Fear of investigation into immigration statuses and the prospect of deportation is another reason undocumented migrants may be reluctant to report abuse to the Gardaí.
The last issue was highlighted in the PhD thesis of Dave McInerney, a long-serving sergeant in the diversity unit who recently retired.
Fallon says he hasn’t read McInerney’s thesis and doesn’t know if that happens. His view is that it shouldn’t.
The guards should look into the legal statuses of criminals, he says, but not victims. “I think there should be a difference.”
Fallon says it’s disappointing to hear the accounts in the INAR reports, but hearing critical voices is helpful in trying to address issues.
“We use this concept of critical friends, so if we have instances of poor practice or poor service provision by members of An Garda Síochána, absolutely, we need to hear that,” said Fallon.
He said he would like to leave the community engagement bureau knowing he’s done something to make minority groups trust the Gardaí more.
Michael, the sociologist, says surveying minority groups about their trust levels in the Gardaí can be a good start. “Because they don’t do it now.”
Fallon said a few times that he knows the diversity unit is not perfect. “But I think we’re very authentic and genuine in our efforts.”
His challenge now, he said, is making diverse communities feel like they belong. “That’s a long-term kind of plan for us.”