Important task of garda reform must now pass to another
Politicians' expressions of regret for others' misfortunes are often, shall we say, formal. Not so with Enda Kenny's regret for the resignation of Alan Shatter. Since he formed the Fine Gael-Labour coalition three years ago, the Taoiseach has seen his Justice Minister as one of the chief mainstays of the Government. He admires Mr Shatter for his intelligence and his combativeness – which many see as arrogance. But yesterday he had no choice but to admit that Mr Shatter could no longer stay in office.
And if he is wise he will admit, if only to himself, that the resignation was belated. The alleged bugging of the Garda Ombudsman Commission's offices in February brought to crisis point a conglomeration of scandals which have inflicted enormous damage on the enviable reputation of the Garda Siochana and forced the departure of Commissioner Martin Callinan.
Mr Kenny should have seen the writing on the wall before the inquiry by Sean Guerin SC was set up to probe the handling of allegations by the garda whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe (pictured below). Mr Guerin has reported with admirable speed. His report will be published tomorrow. The Taoiseach gave an outline in the Dail yesterday.
The report criticises the police, the Department of Justice and the Minister personally. This has made the Justice Minister's departure inevitable.
In Ireland, ministerial resignations are so rare as to make each of them a sensation. But this one is no nine-day wonder. The issues involved go, directly or indirectly, to the heart of how the country runs its political and administrative affairs and, crucially, to the integrity and professionalism of a police service long admired and respected.
For the Government, yesterday's developments came at a bad time. Fine Gael, and more especially its Labour allies, are fighting difficult local and European elections. This week they got a boost from the astonishing manner in which the Fianna Fail leaders shot themselves in both feet over the candidature of Mary Hanafin. The switch of the spotlight has wiped out any advantage they might have enjoyed there.
But the implications go far beyond, and below, any temporary embarrassment for the Government.
Never has there been a greater need for root-and-branch reform, in this case of the Garda Siochana – and never has there been a better opportunity.
The Government's unpopularity derives chiefly from the pain inflicted by the austerity programme. But of late it has grown clearer and clearer that the public are also deeply concerned about the blatant bungling of the most fundamental tasks of any government.
Mr Shatter's successor therefore needs to set speedily about the task of restoring both public confidence and internal morale within the police force.
The "culture" recently identified in the Smithwick Report must be reversed. The author of the report, Judge Smithwick, found that the gardai whose conduct he investigated put loyalty to their comrades above their duties. This is a common and understandable fault, not only in Ireland. But it cannot be tolerated.
Rank-and-file gardai must be convinced of fair treatment, in promotions and in other respects. There is something profoundly wrong in a force when some of its members say openly that they do not want promotion, only to serve their time.
Leadership is crucial. Urgent steps should be taken to identify high-flyers, the younger the better, and give them important – and of course challenging – positions. As an interim measure, the new minister should consider appointing a commissioner from abroad. We need someone like Hugh Orde, probably the best chief constable Northern Ireland ever had.
As to the Taoiseach and his ministers, they should under-take a deep examination of conscience. They have fought bravely to overcome the dreadful circumstances they inherited. But that is not enough. Cronyism, favourit-ism – and worse – still prevail.
The departing minister has often been accused of this fault. But even his detractors must admit his intelligence and his brilliance as a parliamentarian. With his departure from office, an important reform programme remains uncompleted. Another challenge, and another opportunity.