Wednesday 20 September 2017

Reinventing An Garda Síochána

These are dark days for the force but could its ­fortunes yet be turned around? The example of Northern Ireland suggests so
Roll call: Tanaiste, Francis Fitzgerald arrives for the Probationer Garda Passing Out Parade in the Garda College, Templemore, Tipperary. Photo: Damien Eagers
Roll call: Tanaiste, Francis Fitzgerald arrives for the Probationer Garda Passing Out Parade in the Garda College, Templemore, Tipperary. Photo: Damien Eagers
John Meagher

John Meagher

William Geary was a garda superintendent who was removed from the force in 1928. He had been accused of being an IRA informant following a short investigation. Disgraced, the Clare man soon felt compelled to emigrate to the United States, where he remained for the rest of his life.

But Geary never stopped protesting his innocence. He must have felt his efforts would come to nothing, but finally, 71 years later - at the age of 101 - the former policeman was granted an official apology from the Department of Justice.

He received a pension to take immediate effect from that date in 1999, but it was not back-dated, despite protestations. He died with his name exonerated at last.

Senator Gerard Craughwell tells this story to illustrate problems that he feels have been endemic in An Garda Síochána since its foundation in 1922. "It was shown all those years later that the original investigation into Geary hadn't been nearly thorough enough and that poor man had to live with the shame for almost his entire life."

Craughwell, an Independent senator, has been tireless in his efforts to highlight the deficiencies of the force at its most senior level. As a former soldier whose late brother was a garda detective, he says he is steeped in the country's law and order, but believes root and branch reform is essential if the force is to have any hope of winning back public trust. He insists that heads must roll.

"[Commissioner] Nóirín O'Sullivan's position has been untenable for a long time," he says, "but there are many other senior gardaí in management that need to be placed on gardening leave too. The litany of revelations shows that some of them feel they are above the law. It's clear that any investigation into what is wrong with the force needs to happen in an environment where these people are not in charge."

Since replacing the beleaguered commissioner, Martin Callinan, in 2014, O'Sullivan's tenure has been characterised as lurching from one crisis to another. The latest crisis stems from revelations that up to a million breathalyser results on the Pulse system never actually took place - and it comes just weeks after it was shown that garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe had been subjected to a damaging smear campaign to wreck his good name.

O'Sullivan has clung on and on Wednesday she held a rallying meeting with all superintendents at Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park. But for Senator Craughwell, and many others, enough is enough. "There's no credibility left with her staying on," he says, "and what sort of message is the Taoiseach conveying by continuing to say he has confidence in her leadership? It's clear that the public's faith in the way the force has been run has been shot to pieces."

A garda survey of 6,000 people last year showed that while 85pc of respondents trust rank and file gardaí and the majority of people see them as friendly, helpful and community-focused, more than half do not think the force is either well managed or a world-class police service. And, damningly, almost four-in-10 do not believe the police service tackles crime effectively.

For one Dublin-based sergeant, a similar survey conducted now would make for even more disheartening reading. "After all the McCabe stuff came out, you'll have to look hard to find any guard on the street who wants the Commissioner to stay. And the breath tests story really makes the force look as though it's out of control.

"It's been a very tough time, with new scandals seeming to happen all the time. Morale is really poor - as bad now as I've ever seen it, and the station-talk is of a police force that has a rudderless management. You'd have to wonder what the trainees in Templemore are thinking of all this - they must be asking themselves if they really want to spend their working lives in an organisation that has been so shoddily run."

For the Garda Representative Association (GRA), morale among members has been at rock-bottom for years. "Morale has been most apparent by its absence for at least a decade," says spokesperson, John O'Keeffe. "The lack of up-to-date equipment - and indeed equipment generally - manpower and other resource matters, have also been consistently raised by us since the economic crisis as hugely undermining of our members' work and their output.

"At the moment the GRA are busily preparing for their annual delegate conference in Galway at the end of April when these, and many other core issues, will of course be democratically scrutinised."

The union refuses to be drawn on the latest crisis. "The GRA will not be making any direct comment on the current issues in the force as we believe them to be operational and, so, management-driven," says O'Keeffe.

For one comparatively new recruit, An Garda Síochána has been a constant source of disappointment. "It's not just the way Nóirín O'Sullivan has handled all these problems that have mounted up," she says, "it's also the way it still feels like an old-boys' club, which is ironic considering a woman is in charge.

"Nepotism is alive and well and those who get on, or get moved to the stations they want to be assigned to, tend to know people. One of the first things I was asked was, 'Who do you know in here with pull?' I said I knew no one and they joked, 'Well, you'll be stuck on the beat, so'. Promotions should be based on merit, not who you know."

Garda reform has been mooted for years but it feels as though it now needs the most radical overhaul in its history. For branding expert Jack Murray, CEO of the All Good Tales agency, reform most start with transparency. "The lack of transparency has been a huge issue for them for at least 36 months," he says. "And the only way they can show that they're serious about addressing this is to bring in independent and third-party management, possibly from abroad.

"The scandals are so entrenched that the current management seem punch-drunk when trying to handle them. One of the main rules of crisis management is to quantify the full scale of the problem and it's hard to believe they yet know how substantial it is."

Murray says the force has struggled to show the positive aspects of what it does and even when it attempts to do that, there's a caveat. "There was a report from Paul Reynolds about the success they had had a year on from the Regency Hotel attack and it had led the RTE news," he says, "and even though it was a positive story, I couldn't help but feel something big was round the corner - and that something was Maurice McCabe."

Craughwell believes that while the problems are mounting up, they are not insurmountable. "The police forces in Australia and New York were transformed for the better and the PSNI is a perfect example about how you can go from a body [the RUC] that was greatly mistrusted by a large chunk of Northern Ireland's population to a service today that is respected by most in the community."

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) came into being in 2001 and its acceptance by the nationalist community was hard-won. A programme of positive discrimination was introduced to encourage more Catholics to join and there have been recruitment drives in the Republic too, something that would have been unthinkable in the RUC days.

When it was established, just 8pc of police officers in Northern Ireland were Catholic. Today the proportion is 30pc. And, yet, such an approach has brought out critics, including the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson, who called it "institutionalised state-sponsored discrimination in the 21st century".

But a major UK report in 2014 was unstinting in its praise of the police force: "The terrorist threat in Northern Ireland, though much diminished, remains real and ever present and it would have been substantially greater without the efforts of the PSNI."

The PSNI has been well resourced since its foundation, although some have called for greater spending in recent years, and it's generally accepted that An Garda Síochána needs substantial new funding especially to bring total numbers of police up to its pre-recession level, which peaked at 14,377 officers in 2010. (Four years later, the number had fallen to 12,992 due to a freeze on recruitment.)

A reformed force will have to demonstrate that any funding is being used appropriately.

"If we want a really good police force, we have to invest money into it," says retired Garda Mick Carty. "It's not something you can cut from and the best police services around the world don't have their money cut.

"It doesn't have to mean that all Garda stations stay open - they're right to close some of them - but you have to have contingencies in place to replace them, like mobile units. It needs a really good shake-up starting with effective and confident management and where there's full transparency."

"There's no point in introducing half-baked change," Senator Craughwell adds.

"It has to be transformative. Otherwise, the problems will keep on coming, and unfortunately they've been coming since the days of William Geary."

A crisis-ridden tenure

Nóirín O'Sullivan inherited two immediate problems: allegations that An Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) was under surveillance by an unknown group which had used "government-level technology" and the revelation that phone calls in Garda stations nationwide had been recorded on a mass scale for over 30 years.

This year, she has had to contend with the fallout from the Maurice McCabe scandal, as highlighted by RTÉ's Prime Time.

And then, within weeks, she came under sustained pressure after, first, it was reported that 14,700 people were wrongly convicted of motoring offences after they weren't given the opportunity to pay a Fixed Charge Notice and, then, it was revealed that almost one million phantom breath tests were recorded on the Garda Pulse system. It had been claimed that 1,995,369 tests were carried out when in fact only 1,061,381 had taken place.

On Thursday, O'Sullivan told an Oireachtas Justice committee that she wanted to apologise for all the failures that have happened in the force over the last 10 years but she insisted that she has never shirked responsibility. And she has vowed to stay on, despite sustained calls from several TDs to step down.

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