ON any given night who would you expect to see behind bars in a garda station cell? A mugger waiting for a court hearing next morning? A drunk sleeping off his excesses? Or a garda, getting some kip because he can't afford a car to drive home?
That's the picture painted by members of our forces at the moment because the cutbacks in their pay have meant they can't afford to run a car or make payments on loans.
Unsocial shift hours often means that public transport is out and some of them have resorted to spending the night, uncomfortably, in the police station as a last resort.
Everyone's suffering, of course, and there would be little sympathy for a garda's plight from those whose unemployment has meant owning a car at all was always a pipedream, but before you rush to judgment, bear in mind that a garda has a particular duty the rest of us don't: he or she is not allowed to have debts they cannot repay, by law.
Now, just consider for a minute where you stand. Credit card bill this month? Gas bill in this week? Car loan repayments? Mortgage? They add up, as we all know. Some get shifted to one side while we tackle the others. Some don't get paid this month at all, or maybe next month either. Some we know will be followed up by threatening red letters before long. A garda cannot find himself in this position.
He's not allowed to juggle the bills and leave debts simmering or he might lose his job. Many of them took out loans (and yes, were encouraged to), based on that 'Job for Life', guarantee along with generous over-time payments and the promise of that fat State pension -- far earlier than the rest of us enjoy one -- and are maxed to the hilt as a result.
They are now finding that a cap on overtime, together with pay cuts, means that some of them are in a precarious financial situation. Now the garda credit unions, suppliers of many of the debts, are themselves in trouble, and have capped loans to members while they try and get a grip on their own finances. St Raphael's -- the Dublin branch -- and largest in the country, has "doubtful debts" of €13m, some of which it is pursuing through the courts. Added to that, Commissioner Martin Callinan has had his overtime budget for fighting organised crime halved, leaving many gardai looking at shrunken pay packets and rising loans.
Of course there are gardai out there who lost the run of themselves financially, no more than anyone else. Nobody should feel particularly sympathetic to those who can't afford their apartment in Spain, or have no tenant for the commercial property they took a gamble on. But what of the young garda who took tender steps on to the property ladder at the height of the market, backed by the safest lender in the country on the safest job around, and now cannot pay his mortgage?
Unlike you or me, a strike for better pay or in objection to circumstances, is out of the question, 'blue flu' notwithstanding, as is turning up in court and pleading the beal bocht.
Nor, by the same rule, is he allowed to take on a second, part-time job to make ends meet.
These are all solutions being sought by everyone else in the same boat, but gardai cannot. If the anecdotal reports are true, and they are simply sleeping in their stations, camping out and getting up for the next shift, then that's hardly something we want to encourage.
Surely the ever-vigilant health and safety police would have something to say on the matter?
The old economic marker for Ireland was traditionally the 'Guard married to the Nurse'. It was used by politicians of various hues to explain complicated tax systems and budgets -- to give us a feel for the "ordinary" family. Well, if that's still the case, there's no doubt that both are suffering quite as much as any other family at the moment.