SUN, 13 MAR, 2022 – 06:30
When Fares Sabbagh saw that you had to be able to speak Irish to join the Gardaí, he knew it was not for people like him.
“When I was a teenager I looked into the Gardaí, not because I wanted to join, I was just curious about it,” the now 30-year-old said.
“One of the conditions was you needed the Irish language, so straight away that excludes a lot of people.”
The condition to have a qualification in Irish was dropped in the mid-2000s, but there remained a requirement to be proficient in two languages, one of which had to be English or Irish.
And late last year, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris went further, and, in the current recruitment campaign, applicants are only required to be proficient in one language, which can be either English or Irish.
“We are very keen to break down some of the barriers that may have been deterring people of every ethnicity, minority background, religious identity or none from applying to become a Garda,” the commissioner said at the launch of the current campaign.
Mr Sabbagh is a second-generation immigrant. His parents arrived in Ireland from Syria in the 1970s.
The last census, in 2016, estimated there were over 63,000 Muslim people in Ireland and that figure is expected to be higher when this year’s census comes in.
But despite Muslims arriving in the country since the 1950s and three generations now here, there are thought to be only a handful of Muslim gardaí in the country, though Garda HQ does not have an ethnic or religious breakdown.
Mr Sabbagh said the Irish-language issue would have been a big factor, along with the common fear many Muslims, particularly from Arab countries, have towards the police, which can pass down the generations.
“It’s pretty common in certain countries, some of them are dictatorships,” he said.
“When someone is put in prison in an Arab country they’d usually say the guy was a hero, a good person. In Ireland, it’s the opposite because they committed a legitimate crime, so there’s normally a negative perception not only to the police but the army as well and the secret services.
“People have that same idea when they come to Ireland, thinking is it the same here. They have that barrier, that distance towards police.”
Fazel Ryklief, who has been in Ireland since the 1970s, agrees.
He came to Ireland from South Africa after marrying an Irish woman and has been working in the Dublin Mosque, as it’s known, on the South Circular Road, since the 1980s.
He returned to South Africa in 2002 and came back to Ireland in 2015. He knows how police after seen in many countries.
Fazel Ryklief outside the Mosque on The South Circular Road, Dublin. Picture: Moya Nolan
“Coming from South Africa we never dealt with the police, we were terrified of the police.”
He said before 2002, the Muslim community had little contact with the gardaí unless something went wrong and needed help.
“When I came back in 2015, I found something quite amazing: guards sitting here in the reception rooms, having coffee with us. Every Friday [before prayers] they had a clinic and people with problems or issues would sit with them and speak to gardaí in private.”
Mr Sabbagh, who works as an administrator in the mosque, said the clinic was a major benefit, which closed with Covid but is soon to restart.
“The guards were here every second week, for anyone who needs it for advice and they could speak directly to the guards and it was confidential,” he said.
“We have people who can’t speak English or not too well and we can translate or give a helping hand.
“So when they [the guards] are coming down, the mosque is familiar territory, a place I am comfortable seeing them. People might not feel as comfortable going to a garda station.”
Both mention “Sergeant Mick”, from Kevin Street Garda Station, referring to the Community Policing Sergeant Mick Nagle.
“We talk to each other on the phone and he comes here,” said Mr Ryklief. “If he is passing by, he’ll pop in and have a baclava and cup of coffee,” he said smiling.
“We have a great relationship with the guards, we have no issue whatsoever. They are very kind and helpful and we cooperate with them if they are wanting some information or understanding of certain issues.”
He said that a few months ago, the parents of a Pakistani boy living in Dublin were at wits end as they could not contact him and didn’t know where he was.
“I rang Sergeant Mick and he made a lot of effort trying to find out where he was, it took an hour or two. He had died, unfortunately. Sgt Mick was so helpful.”
Mr Ryklief has been in the mosque when things were very difficult, in the aftermath of jihadist atrocities abroad, and threats are received from a small number of people.
“There was a time when we were terrified after some threats. But we had the guards coming by almost every day, driving by and checking in.”
Both Mr Ryklief and Mr Sabbagh support the aims of the recruitment campaign and have put up posters around the place.
“Definitely yes, it’s a good idea,” said Mr Sabbagh.
“It is generally nice to see different colours and languages and backgrounds in all professions, including gardaí. And it does help tackle the issue of racism. If you have a work colleague from a different background than you and working with you for years, you build that connection and relationship. It’s one of the best ways to combat indifference and conflicts and racism.”
Mr Ryklief: “If you are a Muslim garda, you might be more comfortable talking, because of culture and language, you might relate a lot better, but there is nothing negative in relationships with gardaí.”
He said the recent changes regarding religious headgear, such as the Sikh turban or the Islamic hijab was a very positive move.
Driving the Garda efforts in Dublin’s south inner city is Chief Superintendent Mick McElgunn.
Chief Supt Michael McElgunn, Dublin South Central Division, with a colleague, meeting Fazel Ryklief and members of the Dublin Mosque
He commands the Dublin South Central division, which stretches all the way from Bluebell across the south city centre over to Donnybrook and out to the Grand Canal.
It’s a diverse population and includes two of the main mosques in Dublin – the Clonskeagh Mosque and the Dublin Mosque. It also covers a third mosque, in Blackpitts.
“We have eight different nationalities among gardaí in this division,” he said, including at least one Muslim, from Eastern Europe and a Sikh reservist in Pearse Street Station.
“Diversity is beginning to grow. It is nowhere near where it needs to be, but this recruitment campaign is a good opportunity,” he said.
He said the community policing unit in Pearse Street Station, led by Sgt Colm Kelly, approached the Immigrant Council of Ireland about holding a recruitment information session for minorities, held last month.
“I went down with the local superintendent Dermot McKenna and had a chat with them. There were people from India, Africa, including north Africa and there was a guy there who was a policeman in Afghanistan before coming here.”
He said they did not know yet if any applications would come from it, but said it was beneficial and were thinking of holding another before the application deadline of March 16.
He said in a recent visit to the Dublin Mosque they brought application posters with them, which they have also distributed in the other mosques.
Chief McElgunn said it was “essential” that the Gardaí represented the makeup of the population, which, he said, was “very diverse” in the south inner city.
“It’s important to be seen as open to all members of the community and we have an opportunity to learn from mistakes elsewhere.”
He said it was difficult to put a finger on why certain large minority groups, such as the Muslim and the West African community had not joined the organisation but did cite one of the reasons both Mr Ryklief and Mr Sabbagh mentioned.
“I think it will take a generation,” he said. “A lot of people from the Middle East and certain parts of Africa won’t have a trusting relationship with policing in general, so there’s an element of legacy with that.
“But it’s over to us to try and break that down. When we have role models in various communities that help as well, in the younger generation, in sport etc.”
He said the likes of the clinics in mosques also help: “Many would not come to garda station, there is a reluctance. So, we have to, softly, break that down.”
He said for the organisation it was really important to have a relationship with the various communities, particularly if major events or tragedies happen.
This was seen after the fatal shooting by gardaí of George Nkencho in Clonee, west Dublin, in December 2020, sparking protests.
“This is wider than just policing,” said Chief McElgunn, speaking generally.
“We have to be inclusive as a society. Incidents and traumatic and terrible incidents happen and it is important we have a relationship with all communities. That’s the motivation behind a diverse recruitment campaign.”
He said gardaí were also trying to build confidence among minorities by improving the recording of racist incidents and hate crimes.
He said that while they are awaiting the Hate Crime Bill to go through the Oireachtas, the organisation had introduced a working definition and had also set up an online reporting system.
Chief McElgunn said that in the first half of 2021, there was an 80% increase in reports, compared to the same period in 2020, to around 230/240 incidents.
“We are opening channels for people to make complaints,” he said. “It’s a question then of taking a couple of prosecutions.”
He said online harassment motivated by hate was a “challenging” offence to investigate but said they were doing so and had around “15 active cases”, including two where the victims are gardaí.
All of these steps, he hopes, will make policing an option for more people from minorities.
Ms Sabbagh said: “It depends on how well it’s advertised. When people are looking at their career options, a career as a guard, what has it got to offer people? I haven’t seen that advertised much.”
Mr Ryklief said: “I suppose it will take time, but the confidence is there. People will have to decide themselves, but it is a good thing to do, not only for your own community but for the Irish community.”