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Known to gardaí? Every time a man is shot dead, I wait for this little phrase to rear its ugly head

Author and scholar Frankie Gaffney writes about “that vile euphemism: Known to Gardaí. ‘Deserved it’ in other words.”

Frankie Gaffney

Frankie Gaffney came of age in Dublin’s North Inner-City. His father spent time in prison, and he was himself immersed in the city’s underworld. In his mid-20s he left this behind and went to Trinity College where he now holds the Ussher Fellowship to conduct research in literature and linguistics. He published his book, Dublin Seven, last year to critical acclaim. He writes here in the wake of another shooting in Dublin where the media and public waited to hear if the victim was ‘Known to Gardaí‘. 

A PASSAGE IN my novel, Dublin Seven, describes the press reaction to the murder of an inner-city man:

Over the next few days more details emerged, but the item slipped down the billing. Television that night showed the flats. Girls standing around in pyjamas. Garda tape flailing in the wind . . . 25 years old the newsreader said. Then that vile euphemism: Known to Gardaí. ‘Deserved it’ in other words.

I think that’s pretty spot-on. Every time I hear that another man has been shot dead in this city, I wait for this ugly little phrase to rear its ugly head. We all know what it means.

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I wish they would just say “known criminal”, “convicted drug-dealer”, “gangster” or something else more direct. More honest. The libel laws in this country don’t legislate against slandering the dead – in Ireland your reputation dies with you – so all the beating-around-the-bush is not for fear of a lawsuit.

Instead we get this weird cliché.

“Known to Gardaí”.

It’s used because it’s sort of a knowing wink. The passive-aggressive insult you can’t get called out on. A typically Irish circumlocution.

“You know yourself”.

“He wouldn’t be my favourite person in the world now.”

“You wouldn’t know what he’d be up to.”

Nudge nudge.

“Known to Gardaí” simultaneously dismisses the worth of a real human-being, while asserting the authority of the gardaí’s opinion. In other words, “If they say he’s no good, he must be no good.”

I’ve known a lot of young men – vulnerable, troubled young men – who ended up “Known to Gardaí”, for a multitude of transgressions, some minor, some serious.

Unfortunately I’ve also known some men whose life was taken from them prematurely.

And instead of a eulogy, the established print media – and our national broadcaster – summed up their entire existence on this earth with a silly, thoughtless slogan.

And that’s how their brief time on this planet was recorded. Their experiences, their mistakes, their passions, their loves, their intelligence, their wit, all reduced to a single trite, nasty comment.

True, some of these men were “bad” people.

But what made them bad?

Why does this happen to people from the area I grew up in and not to young men from Blackrock, Killiney or Dalkey? Because of social conditions, because of prohibition, because of poverty.

As John Lonnergan (former governor of Mountjoy) pointed out, the patrons of his prison came overwhelmingly from a certain few economically deprived areas. Are the people who happen to be born in these places intrinsically prone to criminality through some genetic defect, or are we punishing them for an accident of birth?

And who are the gardaí to give this verdict anyway? There is no due process involved in offering such information to the press, the publication of which must only compound a grieving family’s misery.

No right to a fair trial, no chance to mount a defense. The symbiotic relationship between the media in Ireland and the gardaí is not just unhealthy, it’s dysfunctional to the point of pathology.

Reporters rely on gardaí to offer them a lot of discretionary information like this, given completely at their whim, without any accountability. Gardaí are unlikely to favour journalists who criticise them.

Maybe this is why so few of the “crime-fighting” correspondents had anything at all to say about the recent epidemic of corruption uncovered in our police force (or the subsequent cover-up), other than to deny its existence.

Yet we continue to see articles about “scumbags” refer to anonymous “sources” in lurid and sensational tales that usually amount to little more than trivial gutter gossip.

Such a standard of citation would be completely unacceptable in the average undergaduate essay in any third level institution in the country. Yet day in, day out, the gardaí and press conspire to concoct narratives about real human beings that are then disseminated nationwide.

Even the average living convicted criminal isn’t deemed by the state to have a “good reputation” to uphold, and is therefore defenseless against any attack in the media, whether truthful or not.

If you think the person is to blame for how they’re remembered, you’d be right. To an extent. But they’ve paid the ultimate price for it, and been held to account by the state and the press.

Why stick the boot in straight after their death? What about the people who consume these drugs, people from every walk of life? Plenty of journalists (that’s on the record). Gardaí have been convicted on drugs charges too (also on the record).

What about the gardaí who brutalise and alienate working-class young men with near impunity? As Fr. Peter McVerry said, young men in inner-city Dublin do not respect the gardaí “because the gardaí do not respect them”.

14/4/2016 Gangland Murders Crime Scenes The scene of yesterday's shooting on Sheriff Street Source: RollingNews.ie

What about the politicians who did nothing to address generations of inner-city deprivation, and a level of inequality that sees progression to third level at 99% in Dublin 6, while in Dublin 17 only 15% make it that far?

What about everyone who voted in successive governments who have done nothing to change this? What about all of us?

If a journalist cares about honesty, they should write the plain truth as they see it, not innuendo. Write about statistics, not gossip. Society, not personalities.

Most of all, they should turn their sights on those who actually have the power to change the situation: the police, the politicians and the wealthy. People who hold the power in this country.

Neither the gardaí or the press chase those people with the same enthusiasm, the same vitriol – the same hate –with which they go after young working-class men. Tackling the criminality and corruption in the upper echelons of society would be a good start in combating the conditions that cause violent crime in this city.

Until these conditions are addressed, we will keep hearing about more men getting shot dead who were “known to gardaí”.

Frankie’s novel, Dublin Seven, was published to critical acclaim and is available in all good bookshops.

This article was originally published on 15 April 2016 

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