A civilian commissioner could cut through political issues and restore faith in gardai
The politicisation of the heavily-bruised long arm of the law – also an arm of the State – can no longer continue. It must be detached from political oversight to achieve the much-cited (but little acted upon) aim of restoring public confidence in the gardai.
Since the inception of the Irish State, policing has been essentially controlled by the government, through the political appointment of the Garda Commissioner.
Dedicated gardai and capable managers of them are what best serves the public interest. Political intrusion has helped to undermine the independence of the gardai.
A system of external, independent supervision of the police service is crucial, and we need to look abroad for best practices to be implemented. But here's another thought, as debate swirls about policing – not least, the challenge of persuading people that we can all expect to be treated equally under the law. Why not appoint a civilian commissioner?
The notion that the commissioner should be drawn automatically from garda upper echelons – and therefore embedded within the culture – is now being questioned. However, all the emphasis centres on the pros and cons of recruiting a commissioner from another police service. Another alternative exists: and it has been tried and tested.
There have been two civilian commissioners in garda history, both responsible for important modernisation work. Could a civilian appointment make swifter advances towards repairing public faith, as well as overseeing a more transparent and accountable policing system? Those two civilians who joined the gardai at the top rank left behind worthwhile legacies. They were drawn from government departments, and had proven management skills – both using their civil service experience to institute significant reforms. I don't suggest a civilian appointment must be a civil servant, necessarily – simply that a number of alternatives ought to be considered. Which skill sets are needed for the job? What career experience would be an asset?
Some may argue that a civilian commissioner would not inspire staff loyalty, but a lack of service records was no problem for the two men who have taken on the role.
The first civilian commissioner was Michael Kinnane, the fourth to hold office. He was assistant secretary of the Department of Justice when appointed Garda Commissioner in 1938. UCD professor of modern history Diarmaid Ferriter describes him as enlightened and popular. He said: "He tried to bring garda working hours into line with those in other professions . . . and helped to institute a system of negotiations between government and garda representatives aimed at improving salaries and welfare. He also started the revision of the outdated police code inherited from the Royal Irish Constabulary."
Mr Kinnane died in office in 1952, the only incumbent to do so.
His immediate successor, Daniel Costigan, built on those foundations. He was seconded from the Department of Labour and his innovations included an emphasis on training. Officers were sent to Britain on courses, to benefit from advances in policing. Commissioner Costigan was criticised in the Ryan Report, after Scotland Yard contacted him about compromising photographs sent to Britain for developing, and he asked Archbishop John Charles McQuaid to handle it because the suspect was a priest. But his handling of security surrounding John F Kennedy's historic visit to Ireland was excellent, considering the president mixed with huge crowds and three assassination threats were received before his arrival.
But to return to our politicised police service: close links between the Department of Justice and the gardai were reinforced by the Troubles, with anxieties about the State being undermined.
However, it is 16 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Politicians have long needed to back off.
In some cases, deficiencies in policing standards resulted from political meddling – for example, Commissioner Patrick McLaughlin was forced to resign after authorising garda tapping of journalists' phones. This was instigated by Taoiseach Charles Haughey and his justice minister Sean Doherty. Commissioner McLaughlin also signed off on bugging phones belonging to senior Fianna Fail politicians opposed to Haughey in the early 1980s.
The first commissioner, Michael Staines, a pro-Treaty TD, predicted the gardai would succeed "not by force of arms or numbers, but on their moral authority as servants of the people". An honourable man, he served for just seven months before stepping down in September 1922 following the Civic Guard mutiny.
It would be an exaggeration to suggest the police service's ability to exercise moral persuasion is in shreds, because by and large gardai remain respected. But public confidence is too dented to ignore. The Morris Report conveyed astonishment at the level of insubordination. The Garda Ombudsman was set up as a result, but shortcomings flagged in the report remain to be fixed.
We know now that some gardai engaged in wrongdoing, or turned a blind eye to it in their colleagues; that the leadership acted in an authoritarian and unaccountable way; and that internal inquiries were often inadequate.
Questions about garda methods are not new. But recent scandals have been particularly damaging, as highlighted not just by the whistleblowers but by the Morris and Smithwick tribunals. Clearly, new blood is needed that is completely independent of the force and of politicians. It is high time a conscious uncoupling of politicians and senior gardai took place.