Are the Gardaí a changing police force or another convenient political football?
Published 08/08/2014 | 02:30
'The Government can and will demand that An Garda Síochána at every level, challenges its own culture and faces up to the unexamined habits within the police service that may need to be stripped away".
This is what Frances Fitzgerald on 21st July at the Magill Summer School. The speech was made ten days after she received the Review Report of the Department of Justice chaired by Kevin Tolan, seven days before the Report was published on the 28th July. The review group had been asked to examine concerns expressed by Seán Guerin SC in respect of the Department of Justice's governance practices and its oversight of external organisations.
The report itself is highly critical of the relationship between the Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána. It cited a "deferential relationship" which the Department has developed towards an organisation that it purports to preside over. Given the level of criticism reserved for the force within the speech, Frances Fitzgerald's words were clearly designed to counteract any suggestion of continuing deference under her stewardship. The timing of the speech is also important as it afforded a relatively new Minister the opportunity to put clear blue water between her and her predecessors in advance of the damning review's release. This could explain the delay in the publication of the Report and its recommendations.
In defining her agenda before criticisms of her own Department were released Minister Fitzgerald is certainly showing early signs that she understands how to manipulate the news agenda far more assiduously than her immediate predecessor Alan Shatter. Notwithstanding his prolific legislative record, he seemed to revel in controversy. It was not a strategy for long term political survival in today's voracious multimedia news cycle. But Frances Fitzgerald knows that it is all about defining the reputation that you want, rather than allowing others to describe the reputation that you deserve.
The Minister for Justice does however accept that operational change is about more than mere optics and she is correct to proceed with caution. To illustrate the point she mentions the word reform a staggering twenty four times in this one speech.
It will do little to arrest the decline of the dwindling morale that is seeping downward within An Garda Síochána at present. Whilst politicians may believe that criticism heaped on political machinations surrounding recent justice issues, are the primary cause for diminishing morale closer scrutiny suggests otherwise. There is no doubt that these issues do contribute to the malaise, but there are many other fundamental issues which are affecting morale which are more practical and closer to home.
The wages of gardaí's have been affected severely during the course of this recession. Once a significant section of middle income families, many Gardaí now struggle to cope with mortgage difficulties, negative equity and other increasing costs For many younger Gardaí living conditions and arrangements have changed radically. Their commutes are further, the shifts are longer, and their promotional prospects bleaker. The respect once afforded to Gardaí from a grateful public has decreased as headline crime statistics have steadily increased. In addition senior management at Garda HQ in Phoenix Park are well aware that the significant drain of experience in recent years will not be without consequence. Reforms which are signalled now will require strong people to implement the necessary change management practices required, and experienced people with quality service will be sadly lacking when they are needed most.
The Tolan report is constructive in many respects and provides the Government and the Minister with a road map for the future. Observers will watch closely to see how the establishment of the new Garda Authority progresses and if it will do enough to instil the professionalism required to bring about a real step change in the way our police force is managed.
On the wider political landscape optics will not be enough to stave off future scrutiny of justice issues.The question of what Enda Kenny said to Brian Purcell that led to his nocturnal sojourn to the home of a serving Commissioner remains unanswered and continues to bounce around the corridors of power like an unexploded hand grenade with the pin removed.
In all walks of life reputation is important. For a police force it is imperative. Respect cannot simply be demanded, it must be earned. Respect will have a huge role to play for the future of the Gardaí and their Minister if they are to overcome this present morass. The confusion of negative reputational contagion can be as corrosive as corruption if allowed to fester. In endeavouring to display distance with past regimes Frances Fitzgerald will have a delicate job in maintaining public confidence in a police force that does not necessarily have confidence in itself. Public confidence is an issue which the Minister must also contemplate in defining her reform agenda. Reputation is hard won, easily lost but once gone almost impossible to restore.