John Downing

Friday 25 July 2014

Leader of 'law and order' party now at a very tricky juncture

John Downing

Published 10/05/2014|02:30

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An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny turning the sod on the €550 million, M17/M18 motorway project yesterday. Picture: Hany Marzouk
An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny turning the sod on the €550 million, M17/M18 motorway project yesterday. Picture: Hany Marzouk

ENDA Kenny needs to move quickly on radical changes – talking about them is not enough.

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Placing everything in the confines of a big over-arching commission of inquiry, as the Government has already announced, will help calm things in the short to medium term. But the Taoiseach needs very tangible signals that change is coming quickly.

Mr Kenny has little more than a calendar year to show that these problems afflicting An Garda Siochana and the Department of Justice are being faced. This is both a big threat and a big challenge to his rating as Taoiseach, which so far, has proved vastly better than the naysayers predicted on March 9, 2011, when he entered Government Buildings.

Just minutes after this door-stopper of a report dropped we knew precisely why a new Justice Minister was needed to face up to all that was coming. It was good tactics to have Frances Fitzgerald, who projects as a caring and capable woman, in place to face the music.

But the politics of this Guerin Report could easily prove the Taoiseach's undoing if he is not careful.

Alan Shatter is gone from the Government though far from being forgotten. Yet the pace of national politics is such that this issue is now full-square on for the Taoiseach himself – there are few buffers between him, beyond his new Justice Minister, and the fallout from further garda/justice calamity.

The Guerin Report asks very serious questions about the delivery of law and order to a hugely compliant and law-abiding Irish citizenry. If voters feel 'the party of law and order' cannot deliver this core promise, they will very quickly become fundamentally disillusioned.

We are talking about disenchantment far more deep-rooted than any dissatisfaction with various policy failures.

"If root and branch reform is what is needed, root and branch reform is what will happen", Ms Fitzgerald, pledged as she faced journalists outside Government Buildings barely an hour after Guerin's findings had been published.

There is no debate about "reform needed" but there is huge doubt about whether it will "happen".

Ms Fitzgerald has promised a new garda supervisory authority before this year is out. There is also the question of appointing a new Garda Commissioner.

There are arguments for and against holding off on that appointment before the new authority is in place. More generally, the need to show movement generally on these issues is militated against by the establishment of a comprehensive commission of inquiry. This will not be an acceptable alibi for not effecting reforms.

The Taoiseach himself said frankly yesterday that terms of reference for the new commission of inquiry would take time. They cannot just be delivered at next Tuesday's cabinet meeting when the issue will be discussed.

There are more logistical issues before such a commission can get up and running. And the prospect of various witnesses "lawyering-up", contemplating court challenges, poses the prospect of further delays. But Mr Kenny and his government colleagues cannot face the voters in spring 2016 with talk of "the garda inquiry is making good progress".

It is surely time to take a fundamental look at An Garda Siochana's structures and its strange relationship with the Department of Justice. For a long time, the department was thought to be a dead hand on the tiller. Guerin's findings suggest that it stood well back and left the garda senior management to their own devices.

We have had this model of policing since the foundation of the State and there has been little rethinking of it since the early 1970s.

Anecdotal evidence, and the findings of opinion polls, tell us that there is no great animosity among the general public towards An Garda Siochana. But there is a strong sense that the public need proof that the force is properly administered.

That is at the heart of Sean Guerin's report. The populace needs to know the nation is correctly policed.

There are very tricky days ahead for Enda Kenny and his Government. The leader of the party of law and order is now on a very dangerous corner indeed.

Irish Independent

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