Of Vows and Men

For some reason Fridays always take on a religious bent for me in my inclination to write stuff on blogs. And today is no different.

A challenge to authority – The Irish Times – Thu, Apr 29, 2010

A DANGEROUS situation has developed because Garda Representative Association general secretary PJ Stone and his executive appear determined to transform the association into a trade union. If the withdrawal of labour is formally recognised as legitimate action, who will uphold the law and protect citizens? In promoting this agenda, Mr Stone has ignored the findings of the Morris tribunal into Garda corruption in Co Donegal and challenged the authority of both the Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy and Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern.

All Garda recruits make a solemn declaration to discharge their duties with fairness, integrity and impartiality and to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the land. Those laws are quite specific concerning themselves. They cannot engage in strike action or withdraw their labour. It is a fundamental requirement. If some members now feel they cannot uphold that oath, they have the option to resign. Flouting the law in order to protest against Government decisions is not acceptable.

| Irish Examiner

An Garda Siochána – Special role means special obligations

Friday, April 30, 2010

THE very special role An Garda Siochána play was underlined yesterday when Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, despite facing the greatest economic crisis in the history of this State, announced that recruitment to the force will resume before the end of the year.

Some of those recruits are needed in the natural course of events, others are needed to replace gardaí who, in recent times, availed of early retirement opportunities because they were worried about the possibility of tax changes hitting retirement packages.

That special place is readily recognised by the majority of people who support the authority gardaí exercise on behalf of the State. This majority recognises too that the gardaí are the proactive arm of the Constitution who aim to protect all Irish people.

This responsibility brings its own consequences and one is the oath all gardaí must take, just like the 216 recruits who graduated from Templemore Training College yesterday afternoon. They vow to remain apolitical, not to join a trade union and not to strike.

There are good reasons for these provisions, the main one being the proper functioning and protection of democracy. The terms and conditions enjoyed by gardaí acknowledge the sacrifice inherent in this oath.


Remarks from the GRA’s incoming president – Mr O’Boyce’s successor Damien McCarthy – that he had “no difficulty” in supporting his predecessor’s comments, did little to suggest that equilibrium had been restored, or that he understood how they crossed a line. Mr McCarthy’s endorsement suggests he feels free to ignore the commitment he has made, under oath, to this State and its Constitution. By echoing his predecessor he has undermined the legitimacy of his presidency in the week he assumed office. GRA delegates who gave a standing ovation to Mr O’Boyce need to reconsider the implications of the oath they took on the day they left Templemore too.

Minister should lay down law – Editorial, Opinion – Independent.ie

So, if all these statements are sincere, the police force of this country has displayed open contempt for the elected Government, whose laws and directives it is sworn to enforce. Yet the GRA leaders insist that they are not engaging in politics.

The late George Carlin got to the nub of matters raised here: “At what point does all this stuff just break down and become just a lot of stupid shit that somebody made up?”

Read the full text of the planned GRA speech here.

To what degree is someone bound by an oath?

I remember being at mass one time, and the priest, after reeling off a list of requirements concerning moral and sexual hygiene and habits of religious observation, said something along these lines: “Now a lot of people listening to this may be saying, “well, I don’t agree with any of this stuff. Who is this oul’ fella up here telling me what to do? I never signed up to any of this. I never asked to be baptised a Catholic: I just am because the rest of my family is.” Ah, well it’s true, you never asked to be baptised, but didn’t you renew your baptismal vows when you made your confirmation? Hmmmh?”

I imagine plenty of the assembled adults -those who made their confirmation as children aged 11 and didn’t receive a grilling from the bishop on catechism as part of the process- must have been racking their brains trying to remember what the hell they said in their confirmation vows apart from swearing to give up drink until the age of 18, which isn’t even part of the confirmation vows anyway.

In other Catholic countries, people don’t make their confirmation vows until the age of 17 or 18, once they’ve developed the capacity to have a good grasp of what is being proposed that they should vow. But the Catholic Church in Ireland figures, with an undaunted faith in the young, that an 11-year-old is sufficiently aware of what she or he is getting involved in and would be sufficiently independent to declare, in the face of immense accumulated pressure from authority in the forms of the church, the education system and family, that having weighed things up, they’d pass on making the vows because they don’t believe in God. Or because they don’t think the vows are appropriate to their belief in God.

If you’re wondering what the relevance of this is to the Garda oath, bear with me.

You see, a reasonable objection to the validity of the vows taken aged 11, from the standpoint of an adult weighing things up, is that when they were 11 they had an infantile conception of God, which may have involved them imagining God as a satanic accuser, a figure who was primarily the creation of the people who had instructed them, an omniscient policeman monitoring their every move. And this adult may say, well, on consideration, I don’t think it was right for me to make such  vows since I was subjected to coercive forces. Therefore the vows cannot hold.

Now, on the other hand, an adult looking back may deem that the vows were and therefore continue to be valid, even if they recognise that at the time they held an infantile conception of God and so on, because man is by nature incapable of fully envisaging God, that there is no such thing as an ‘adult’ conception of God because He is seen through a glass darkly. And therefore the adult may say that it is precisely on account of fidelity to God as God, not as the man-made image cast before them by priests, that the vow holds. Seen in this light, the vows are not a ‘dead’ set of immutable requirements, like always wearing a balaclava no matter what or cutting your toenails every second Tuesday, but the basis for continued fidelity in God in light of experience and changed circumstances. And it is never the fact of having been bound to them back in the day, but the fact they are something to be held to at any given moment.

That, at least, is the cod-theological edifice I have construed from which to address the question of the Garda oath. Because the papers above and the minister (whose general attitude calls to mind a thug fearful that his weapon dog might turn on him) are drawing attention to the Garda oath as the basis for forbidding the GRA to get involved in ‘politics’ (as though the police could somehow not be involved in politics. What is rounding up ‘illegal immigrants’ if not a nakedly political act?) or to form a trade union.

I have had some difficulty tracking down the precise wording of the Garda oath. But I eventually came across this on Indymedia and see no reason to doubt that it is correct, if not complete:

” I ______ hereby solemnly and sincerely declare before God that I will
faithfully discharge the duties of a member of the Garda Siochána with
fairness, integrity, regard for human rights, diligence and
impartiality, upholding the Constitution and the laws and according
equal respect to all people.”

I also understand that Christian members of the Garda Siochána swear this oath on the Bible. So to repeat George Carlin’s question: at what point does all this stuff just break down and become just a lot of stupid shit
that somebody made up? The short answer is never: it is always already just a lot of stupid shit that somebody made up.

But the basis for the government’s and the media’s command to the guards to just shut up and do what they are told and fulfil their function as the distributors of state violence is the fact that they have sworn this oath. And this oath, it follows, is somehow binding.

Well, let’s look more closely. The oath is made ‘before God’. So it is God who establishes the binding nature of the oath. And any guard who is confronted with the accusation that they are not observing the oath are beholden to God, not the State, with regard to whether or not they are observing it.

Now let’s say it’s a good idea to swear oaths before God. You may disagree, but that is neither here nor there. If it is a good idea, then it could only ever be a good idea because God is good, the One, the condition of possiblity for all things, the Alpha and the Omega, and so on and so forth. Therefore swearing to do certain things before God must mean that whatever you’re going to do is approved by God. If there was something that you understood to go against God, like mugging old ladies (assuming it is your understanding that God disapproves of such things), and you swore before God to do this, then your oath, apart from being blasphemous, would hold no weight, because you’d be lying. It is only based on the understanding of God as good that you swear your oath, not because He is the Notary Universal.

OK, let’s say you discover that one of the things you swore you would do is no longer approved by God. Let’s say you discover the Constitution and the laws have become an instrument for oppress the weak and the destitute. Does that mean you are still bound by your oath to God to oppress the weak and the destitute? Of course not, unless you believe God wants you to oppress them for the hell of it. Maybe He does, but on the other hand, maybe He doesn’t. Who knows? Unfortunately, that is a matter for you and God.

Now, does it mean that you have to relinquish your oath? Well, no. The point is to be faithful to God no matter what. So maybe you made the oath at that moment in time, and you still think that the words of that oath are approved by God, but that what is being demanded of you contravenes the spirit of that oath. So maybe God wants you to display regard for human rights. In which case he probably doesn’t want you to allow the laws to deny people free choice of employment or just and favourable conditions of work. So maybe God wants you to enforce that, rather than cracking open people’s heads for opposing a resource grab by a murderous profit-seeking corporation.

Some people might read this and think, yeah, but the whole God thing is just a ceremonial nicety, a piece of symbolic pissing around designed to lend a sense of irrevocability to a declaration that has no ultimate binding character other than the absolute authority of the State: there’s no need to be so literal-minded about it.

Well, perhaps. But if that’s the case, and the individual swearing the oath doesn’t need to believe that the oath has any meaning, then the oath has no meaning other than the meaning invested in it by whoever points to it. So saying “but you swore an oath!” may mean nothing more than ‘but you must continue to obey!”: a demand for obedience to pure authority.

With this in mind, wouldn’t it be easier to say that the State has absolute command over whoever it chooses as its agents in the administration of the monopoly of violence, the waging of class war, and the destruction of all collective structures? Maybe it would. But then who would fulfil the vital function of making a whole load of stupid shit up? Why, the country would descend into anarchy!

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April 2010

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