Born to serve
Chief Superintendent John Roche, who has retired from the force, worked in 14 Garda stations on the east coast over 40 years and was at the forefront of many high profile local and national cases. Interview by David Looby
If ever a man was destined to be a guard it was John Roche, who grew up a stone's throw from Wexford Garda Station on Roche's Road.
John retired from An Garda Siochána in late March, having served 40 years in 14 different stations across the east coast.
His brother Dave joined the guards in 1974 and John followed suit in 1977, having worked for a time in hotels in Wexford and Waterford.
'I always wanted to be a guard,' John says. 'It's funny now when I think about it. People will remember a detective series called The Sweeney. I was really smitten with that in my mid-teens. There was no question of going to university, number one my parents couldn't afford to send me, number two: either you went to the bank, or civil service or had a trade.'
He remembers sharing a room in Templemore with two fellow garda recruits and the old army style routines. 'We had to polish the floor every night, there was a kit inspection every single morning, haircurts twice a week: shaved, short, back and sides; then out on the parade. We spent hours out in the front square learning the drill, learning to march every week. The young students today do very little of that.'
Like all guards, John learned police duties by rote and in Irish.
'I can still quote the definitions for dangerous and drunk driving and all your powers of arrest. It was an old fashioned way of instilling knowledge into recruits and you had an exam in Irish as well.'
After six months the probationer guard found himself stationed in Kilkenny city. It was at the height of the IRA bank robbery operations and the Bank of Ireland in Graiguenamanagh was robbed.
'It was an armed raid and the superintendent at the time decided to change personnel in Graiguenamanagh and Thomastown and he put me and a newly promoted sergeant, stationed in Graiguenamangh and I spent three very enjoyable years there.'
At that time John had just met his now wife, Joan, who was a student nurse in Dublin, In 1979, he joined scores of guards who travelled to the Pope's speech in Phoenix Park. Another memorable day was when he was bussed to Dublin for the H Block riots.
'If there was a protest march today you would have your usual suspects at the march, but after Bobby Sands died the country was on a precipice. Everybody came out to protest.
'I will never forget that Saturday on the streets of Dublin; the din. Their intent was to burn the British Embassy and cause possibly civil conflict on both sides of the border. We had little or no protection. Out of 50 Kilkenny guards, 44 were came home with minor cuts and bruises.'
While in Graiguenamanagh John took a serious interest in subversive crime in St Mullins.
'There were people with subversive tendancies who resided there linked with the old Saor Éire, the old IRSP and old INLA. Once I moved to Graiguenamangh there was a lot of serious activity. There were people from New Ross involved in Saor Éire who used to visit a certain house in St Mullins. I used to send in monitoring forms about strange movements and strange people calling. They would record that as intelligence and that was sent to our intelligence branch in headquarters and as a result you made a name for yourself in the country. I took an interest in monitoring their activities and as a result of that I went for an interview for the Special Detective Unit based in Dublin Castle.'
Describing working with the unit as a great grounding experience as he worked with some very experienced detectives, he revelled in the big cases.
'I was used to uniformed policing, to doing road traffic work, stopping farmers in tractors. Now we were monitoring some of the top IRA people in the country. This was at the height of the IRA campaign.'
He worked in the northern division which covered Ballymun, Coolock, Raheeny and Howth. 'Ballymun was the old Ballymun with the old towers. There were an awful lot of people on the run - in safe, little flats and there was constant movement of subversives. It was an exciting time. Dáithí O'Connell, was living there, Kevin Mallon who escaped from Mountjoy Prison by helicopter in 1974, he was living out there - all the top people in the IRA. I was only a young detective, they were important people were dealing with.'
John was one of numerous detectives at Dublin Airport when Ronald Reagan visited in 1984. 'All the VIPs used to go through the one area. Maggie Thatcher came in three or four times and there were EU summits in Dublin Castle. The tension in the country was so high at the time.'
In July 1982, John and his unit were called to Charlie Haughey's residence. 'Extra protection was needed as Attorney General Patrick Murphy had come back from the states and was calling. There was press everywhere. It was the Malcolm MacArthur case: he murdered a nurse in the Phoenix Park and a farmer in Offaly and was found in Patrick Murphy's apartment so we had to spend three hours out at Charlie Haughey's huge estate.'
John was promoted sergeant and spent a year in Finglas. 'In Dublin, at the time, you couldn't drive the roads at night without coming across a stolen car. They were stolen for joyriding. It was so dangerous for us and for the joyriders and there were chases.'
John and Joan had bought a house in south Dublin and he worked in Cabinteely for five years.
In 1987 he investigated the kidnapping of John O'Grady. 'Dessie O'Hare and had gone in looking for John O'Grady's father-in-law and got the wrong man and the family were kept hostage overnight. There was protection on his house for years afterwards.'
John warmly recalled the great camaraderie in the force at the time. 'We worked only eight hour shifts, not ten hour shifts like guards do today. You would finish work at 10 p.m. and if it was the Wednesday back after nights you'd go to the local pub and into the nightclubs. The camaraderie helped the gelling of units and inter-station camaraderie also. We would go into the city to work at Patrick's Day parade and for the soccer and rugby matches. There is so much pressure on young guards now and sergeants also maybe the fun is slightly gone out of it.'
John worked in Dun Laoghaire and went on to Crumlin when promoted as an inspector. 'It was a bit more lonely. The higher you go in the guards, the lonelier it gets. All the guards go to you, you are telling them what you want them to do, you are doing the rosters and making sure all of the statements are taken and you are surrounded by people. You are office based, dealing with more industrial relations and HR issues and financial issues as well. You are doing less police work and more administrative work so I am delighted to see so many civilians coming into the organisation now. If we can get skilled civilians in it frees up the guards.'
In Dun Laoghaire he had 40 people working under him. 'We hand picked a crime task force. There were a lot of domestic burglaries. The phones never stopped between the drug unit, the traffic units, a crime taskforce and the day-to-day stuff.'
John was centrally involved in the Raonaid Murray murder case. 'I will always remember the day, it was September 4 and it was coming close to midnight. She was murdered on her way home and she only lived a mile from Dun Laoghaire town centre and in a tree lined walkway she was murdered but to this day it remains unsolved. It's a conundrum really, as we never found a murder weapon despite fingertip searches (of the area). It was an outdoor murder scene, unlike an indoor murder scene where there will be some evidence.'
John was promoted to the rank of superintendent in 2000 and was transferred to the garda college. 'I was over tactical training, driving, public order crowd control training. I was involved in the Lansdowne road riots in 1995 when English football fans rioted. We needed to upgrade the training. John and his colleagues travelled to the UK, France and Spain, to learn more about crowd control. We brought back the best practise. Now we have a mounted unit, dogs etc.'
John and Joan moved to Enniscorthy and in 2005 a vacancy came up in Gorey. 'People will ask how I managed to get a job in the county. Sadly my parents Jack and Hilda had passed away in the mid-1990s and my brother was living in Dublin so I had no family in Wexford so that was reason why I was successful in the transfer request.'
He took up the role of superintendent in Wexford when Pat Delaney, the then superintendent, retired.
'I came down in 2006 and spent two years as superintendent and I replaced Mick Murphy as chief superintendent who had been there since 1993. I said in an interview with the People in 2008 that I would love to see a new station built. Little did I know that it would take a decade.'
The murder suicides of members of the Dunne and Flood families in 2007 and 2009 brought County Wexford policing into the national spotlight. 'They were shocking and tragic. I will never forget the scene in both places. I went to Monageer and to Clonroche early on the morning of the fire and it will stay with me to the end. We were in the spotlight. Enquiries were carried out into the Monageer tragedy. Another murder that stands out was Rebecca French in October 2009. That investigation really highlighted the inadequate facilities we had in Wexford. We had four prisoners arrested for murder and only two cells, so some had to be detained in totally unsuitable conditions. Once they were initially detained they had to be moved to facilitate around the division. It really brought home to me the need to modernise the station. The search, the detentions were totally inadequate. It's so difficult for staff.'
There was one toilet for 75 guards and one toilet for 30 female members including civilian staff, and there was no real privacy for the public. 'If you came in with something very private to ask or relay to the guards there was no privacy. It brought us together in one way as we were all so close as we were on top of each other. I have to praise the staff, the female emembers had to share the men's locker room. One had to move out while the other changed.'
The child victims of adult violence were among the most difficult scenes, he said. 'I always remember one Christmas Eve in Finglas we went to a domestic incident and the partner destroyed the Christmas tree with a machete and destroyed every present. The kids were upstairs afraid to come down. He cried his eyes up in the cell when he sobered up, but on Christmas morning there wasn't a present left for the kids and the Christmas tree was in shreds.'
Did not guilty verdicts and light sentences in certain cases frustrate you? I ask. 'The standards of proof in criminal cases are so high, but for good reason. It's up to us to prove it to that level but if the evidence is there we do. It can be frustrating if a case is lost on a technicality. You just have to learn from it. Our legal system has a high threshold for a reason that we must prove beyond a reasonable doubt. It prevents miscarriages of justice.'
As a chief superintendent John found himself spending much of his time dealing with staff issues. 'Some guards were really under serious under pressure financially and domestically during the recession. I remember one guard coming in to me one day and she just cried her eyes out. Her partner was working away from home and he was away five, six nights a week. She was working ten hours and when she was on nights she would go home, get two hours sleep, get up look after the kids all day, make the dinner, then go to work. That was four nights a week.
'Over-time went and the pay cut. We took it on the chin and we got on with it. When you join the guards it's a vocation. We are not a police force, we are a police service. We took a pay cut but I was happy to still have a job. You tried your best to look after staff. We were successful in some and in other cases we weren't.'
The bureaucracy internally was the most frustrating part of the job, he said. 'Dealing with human nature. The type of people we deal was another; the criminal element of society, who probably don't have respect for us, or for a lot of people. We are dealing with people who are afflicted with addiction, they are committing crime to feed a drug habit. You have to try and understand that while trying to do our job.'
A big regret John has over the past ten years was the transfer of rural station gardaí into towns. 'I was promoted in May 2008 and the recession hit within two months. The budget was cut drastically. There was no more recruiting from 2009 to 2014 and people started to retire early as there were strong rumours that the Government was going to tax the pension and the gratuity and some people panicked and retired early and the Governemnt decided they were going to offer people career breaks so we were under attack from all sides.'
With the retirements and no recruits to fill the backlog, garda numbers in the county fell from 310 to 240 (they now stand at around 290).
'We had to bring the people in from the country stations to maintain the 24 hour larger stations. When I came to Wexford there was a sergeant in Taghmon, Courtown, Blackwater, Duncannon, Castlebridge, Rosslare, Kilmore, and a few more. Now we have only a sergeant in about three of those stations. It rankles that we took people from the rural stations because that local knowledge is lost forever. Now guards are only in rural stations maybe one day a week, or one day a fortnight.'
One case which has frustrated gardaí has been that of Fiona Sinnotts which has been reviewed three times. 'We know there are people in the Ladies Island, Broadway area who know who did it. Maybe sometime their conscience will get the better of them.'
He said seeing guards achieve their potential and developing gave him the greatest job satisfaction.
'As long as the new recruits worked hard and were rewarded for working hard, they reached their potential. Respect is everything. I hope that during my period that I lead by example and therefore the guards, the sergeants, the inspectors, the supers, showed respect, not just with the guards, but with dealing with the public.
'We have gone through a very, very tough time as an organistion over the last four to five years. We have lost the confidence and maybe we have lost the respect (of the public). There is a big job of work now for the organisation to regain that respect.'
Looking back on his career, John said introducing community policing to the county and the construction of the new garda station in Wexford town are two aspects of his job he is proud of. 'I am just glad that I was able to serve the state. We got to know so many community goups so well through the community policing ethos we have engrained in the station. If that can be developed further it would be great as we need to get back to basics in policing.'
He said Pulse needs to be replaced with a new, more integrated crime recording system. 'It was introduced as an IT system to help crime recording. That was fine back in 1999. This is nearly 20 years later. We have had different improvements to the Pulse system but we need a modern IT system.'
John began his career at a time when there were no mobile phones and little or no CCTV. 'The work of the garda was difficult. Now there is CCTV everywhere and the mobile phone is the best tool for investigators ever.'
One case which always brings a smile to his face involved a theft of a shoe.
'Shoes for sale on a rack outside a shoe shop were stolen. There was a brother and sister well known to gardaí in Dun Laoghaire. He had one leg amputated and she used to wheel him about. The left leg was gone. I was walking along and I got the report a left man's shoe had been stolen. There he was with a shiny new left shoe on the right foot and he a little bottle of whiskey to keep him warm.'
John said: 'It's not just a job, it's a career. you are a counsellor, you are an adviser, you are a disciplinarian and the go to person for a lot of people who look at the local guard as the pillar of society.'
He thanked Joan for her unwavering support. 'Without her I wouldn't have been as successful in the 40 years. Without a partner or partners we couldn't do the job because the phones don't stop. I wouldn't change a minute of it. I would recommend it to anybody to go in. I have been very lucky to get to where I was and there are fantastic opportunities.'
A keen walker, John plans to keep exercising during his retirement.
'At the moment it will take a period of adjustment. I will do some charity work. I don't have to shave every morning and the phone is a lot quieter now which is very welcome.'