by Tom McCullough
GARDA Commissioner Drew Harris has paid tribute to a County Limerick woman who has been one of his most prominent adversaries over recent years.
Congratulating Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) General Secretary, Antoinette Cunningham on being bestowed an Alumni award from NUI Galway, Commissioner Harris acknowledged her valuable contribution to policing in Ireland.
Inspector Cunningham, who is a native of Knocklong, received the 2021 Alumni Award for Law, Public Policy and Government in recognition of “her demonstrated and significant contribution to the field of policing and especially during the pandemic.”
Commissioner Harris, who has been a target of some sharp criticism from the AGSI General Secretary, said that Inspector Cunningham had steered the Association through a very challenging period.
“Her valuable contribution to policing in Ireland has made a difference to both our colleagues within An Garda Síochána and to keeping people safe.
“I extend my warmest congratulations to her and all the hard-working members of An Garda Síochána who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic on receiving this award,” the Commissioner added.
Inspector Cunningham has been a member of An Garda Síochána for 30 years. In 2018 she made Irish policing history by becoming its first female full-time official in a Garda Representative Association.
On her way to achieving that career-defining milestone, she also achieved other records for equality, having been the first woman to serve at every level of the Association at Branch, National Executive, President and Deputy General Secretary.
She has served in Killarney, Roxboro Road and Mayorstone Garda Stations and worked as a training Sergeant in the Garda College for ten years. She has a Master’s degree in Adult Learning and Education from NUIG and has a number of other academic and professional qualifications.
As President of AGSI, she led her members to the brink of unprecedented industrial action over pay and conditions in late 2016 before the issues were finally resolved by the Labour Court.
Her advocacy on behalf of gardaí saw the introduction of the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2019 which finally gave gardaí access, through their representative associations, to the services of the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) and the Labour Court to resolve industrial relations disputes.
She has consistently raised the issue of gardaí having the right to negotiate their own pay and conditions, and has been at the forefront in ensuring her members are as equally represented in National Pay Negotiations as all other parties.
Inspector Cunningham has been a central player in the Garda response to the Covid pandemic since March 2020 when Commissioner Harris notified the Garda staff associations that a policing requirement was urgently needed.
The AGSI immediately committed to supporting the Commissioner and the Government in its efforts to stop the spread of the virus. Inspector Cunningham was prominent in representing the members of AGSI right throughout the pandemic, examining the raft of new regulations and legislation that were imposed by the Government.
She asked her members to remain mindful that enforcement was as a last resort only, that interaction with the public must be fair, reasonable, equitable and respect the human rights of all persons. She constantly emphasised that engagement was a key element in seeking the co-operation of the public.
She recently appeared in front of the Justice Oireachtas Committee to speak on Policing issues during the Covid pandemic.
In her acceptance speech at the NUIG ceremony on Tuesday, Insp Cunningham said, “It is a real honour to be bestowed with this prestigious award.
“Firstly, as a member of An Garda Síochána to be recognised on behalf of my colleagues is a real symbol of the appreciation for those on the frontline policing the pandemic.
“The past 18 months have been particularly challenging for the Garda organisation, and we have worked to maintain and enhance our relationship with our communities. “I want to pay tribute to all Garda colleagues that have protected communities throughout this pandemic.
“I feel proud to lead the AGSI through this turbulent period of time. I accept this award with gratitude and humility.”
Looking ahead, she said her professional goal had always been to make a mark and create a legacy for AGSI members.
“I am extremely passionate about rights, equality and transformation, all of which remain challenges but opportunities ahead and my loyalty to the Garda Organisation and the Association is as strong today as it was three decades ago when I joined the force,” she concluded.
AGSI President Paul Curran said they were delighted that Inspector Cunningham’s work in AGSI has been recognised at a national level.
“As a representative organisation it is an honour which we greatly appreciate on behalf of all our members. The pandemic added an extra layer of complexity to our work and this award is both timely and fitting.”