Trouble in the force

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 1997), News, Volume 5

While the recent public demonstration of members of the Garda Siochána is unprecedented it is not the first time there has been unrest amongst an Irish police force on questions of pay and conditions. Up to 1925 responsibility for policing Dublin rested with the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), founded in 1835. At the turn of the century this unarmed force (unlike the RIC) had an average strength of 1,200 to police the rapidly expanding Dublin suburbs and Kingstown borough area.
In the course of the 1913 Lockout the labour leader Jim Larkin made great play of the poor pay and conditions of service of the DMP, and especially the longer working hours occasioned be the dispute itself. A two shillings per week pay rise awarded in 1914 was not considered to be at all adequate and seemed if anything to heighten discontent. By 1916 the weekly rate for a constable was between twenty-five and thirty-three shillings and for a sergeant between thirty-seven and thirty-nine (the lowest rates in the UK). Three members of the DMP were killed during the 1916 Rising and by July of that year members of the force were demanding more pay because of the extra duties they had assumed since the Rising and to offset wartime inflation. In addition the previously unarmed force was undergoing training in the use of fire-arms. The men had to bear the costs of getting to and from this musketry course themselves as well as the increased laundry bills. They demanded a pay increase of twelve shillings one penny per week together with a four shillings per week war bonus. The government had that month actually decided to pay the war bonus. Far from calming things down, however, this only seemed to fuel demands for more pay. ‘DMP and war bonus disappointment’, ran the headline in the Freeman’s Journal in early August as it reported a DMP meeting which demanded both an increase in wages and an increase in the war bonus. The Home Secretary had offered a pay increase of three shillings and six pence per week but the meeting, at 44 Rutland Square, rejected the offer. The 1914 pay rise was their first since 1882: the cost of living had risen by sixty-two per cent in the meantime and the war bonus increase only amounted to ten per cent. A deputation was sent to the Lord Mayor in order to enlist the support of ordinary citizens.
Forty-four Rutland Square was also home to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) and the DMP Commissioner, Edgeware-Johnson, issued an order prohibiting all such gatherings in future since they were ‘obviously subversive’. Meetings took place in the barracks instead where speeches were reported as being ‘strident and aggressive’. At the end of September the men were told that their pay was under review and that there would soon be legislation in this regard so any further agitation was unnecessary. This was ignored. A noisy meeting took place outside barracks confines on 20 October (the Commissioner realised that any attempt to ban it would be ignored). Five days later another meeting was held in the AOH hall in 44 Rutland Square under the chairmanship of John Nugent, nationalist MP for Dublin and secretary of the AOH. Contrary to the oath of allegiance which policeman swore on entering the force, a DMP branch of the AOH was formed.
Instructions came from the Chief Secretary to tell the force what it already knew—‘that membership of any political society…is contrary to the obligations of the police’. Nevertheless further meetings were held. On 28 October the Chief Secretary ordered that those at the meetings should be identified and brought before their superiors and that the ring-leaders should be brought before him personally. The next day a newspaper quoted those constables in ‘B’ division who had been present as saying they had ‘no regrets’. On 30 October the Chief Secretary reported the whole matter to the British cabinet and blamed Nugent for taking advantage of the discontent in the force, even though he knew that there was a bill on police pay going through parliament. He accused him of enticing large numbers of the force into the AOH with the promise to fight for higher wages on their behalf.
After a meeting on 28 October, over one hundred constables enrolled in the AOH. When those identified as having been at the meeting were later questioned by their superiors it did not, we are told, induce any sense of discipline amongst them. The Commissioner was afraid that dismissals would lead to a strike. He preferred to wait until there was a pay rise before taking any steps. In the meantime the authorities had a chance to organise the military and special constables in case there was a police strike. The Chief Secretary asked for guidance from the cabinet on the question of membership of political organisations or secret societies. Like many others at the time, he wondered why the Freemasons were allowed while all others were prohibited. He maintained that the oath should be amended to apply equally to all societies and should then be rigorously enforced. He recommended that Nugent be prosecuted for his part in stirring things up.
While the Commissioner, Edgeware-Johnston, agreed with the Chief Secretary that any action against the ringleaders should be postponed for fear of a strike, he insisted that in the long-term they be dismissed for insubordination. There the matter rested. There were yet more meetings in November despite the ban. Edgeware-Johnson was not happy about these though the Chief Secretary said that they were merely about pay and not political. The Commissioner had to admit that in every other respect those involved were good and efficient policemen.     The DMP had succeeded in attracting the attention of the British cabinet despite being in the middle of a war. On 2 November Asquith voiced his concern to the king about ‘recent cases of organised insubordination in the DMP and the partial success of the propaganda to induce members of the force to join the Ancient Order of Hibernians’. Eventually on 7 November the cases against the ringleaders—Hetherton, Murray, Smyth, Daly and Keating—were heard. Edgeware-Johnson wanted them all dismissed but in the end only Hetherton went while the other four were fined and transferred to other divisions. But they did not go quietly. On the day they were supposed to move, 9 November 1916, they staged a mock funeral. The Irish Times reported ‘a procession of extraordinary character’. The constables loaded their boxes into a hearse and followed it through the street in hansom cabs, shouting, cheering and attracting public attention along the route. That did it. The Commissioner urged their immediate dismissal and the Chief Secretary had to agree. There were several meetings urging the re-instatement of the men and for the next fortnight there were rumours that they were to be taken back  for fear of a strike; but in the end these all came to nothing. As had been predicted the agitation died down when the new pay bill became law. The DMP received a war bonus of three shillings and six pence per week and the basic pay was increased by three shillings after twenty years service. With the payment of arrears they got an extra £5 for Christmas. This experience was to provide the London government with a valuable lesson on how to deal with the police agitation that would arise in Britain itself in 1918.
Of the five men dismissed at the end of 1916, Smyth, Daly and Keating elected to remain in civilian life. In 1922 Hetherton and Murray applied to the new Free State government for readmission to the DMP. Like many whose dismissals were deemed to have been on political grounds they were readmitted. At the end of 1925 the DMP merged with the newly formed Garda Siochána. Hetherton eventually retired from the Gardai in 1932, Murray in 1942.

Mary Scanlon is a history graduate of UCD at present working in England.


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