There was a man shot dead in Dublin over the weekend. Did you know that? Did you know his name? Do you care? He was shot while out walking with his partner and their children. In most civilized societies, that would have caused outrage. In the twenty-six counties it’s just another headline, with a heavy emphasis on the fact that the dead man had been known to the police and that he had been involved in several unsavoury incidents during his life, several of them drug-related.
There’s something shameful about this. Yes, the killing itself is shameful: the effect it will have on his partner and children is sure to be profound and long-lasting. But it’s equally shameful that every time a killing like this occurs (and they’ve been happening in the south at the rate of one every three weeks for several years now. Maybe you remember when that hard political man Michael McDowell was Justice Minister and vowed he’d clean the whole thing up?) – every time such a murder happens, the garda release information about the criminal links of the man killed and the media dutifully report this information. Don’t for one moment kid yourself it’s because the public have a right to know, we need an unmuzzled press, blah blah bloody blah. The sole purpose of releasing such information is to make people think “Oh well, he was a bad egg, a drug dealer, one more less to worry about”. They may not think it in those stark terms but that’s the net effect. Did I say such garda-media collaboration was shameful? Try vomit-inducing.
Because if a system of justice means anything, it’s that everybody is equal before the law and every life is held to be of equal value. I remember raising this question with a young barrister in the south who’d been involved in defending a well-known drug dealer. Had he no qualms of conscience about working to get bail or even acquittal for a man that he strongly suspected was in fact guilty? On the contrary, the barrister told me. He welcomed cases like this because they tested the state’s commitment to justice. It’s relatively easy giving the innocent and the loveable their day in court. It’s much harder to make sure those who might well be guilty are given their day as well, and are provided with the full protection of the law. Only when that’s available to such unsavoury types and the best case made for them can you say you have a justice system worth having.
Which is why when I hear a newsreader say ‘The dead man was known to the police’, I feel slightly ill, and I ask myself why it is that the people of the twenty-six counties are angry only bankers and politicians. The garda and the media are attacking the very notion of a justice system for the state, and I can’t think of anything more damaging to the public good.