Thursday 23 October 2014

Leadership needed for the modern age

Published 27/03/2014 | 02:30

Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and Justice Minister Alan Shatter
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and Justice Minister Alan Shatter

'A fish rots from the head down' – metaphors rarely come more graphic than that one. A proverb of ancient origins, it is well-known in management circles and means problems within an organisation can be traced back to those at the top.

And so to the gardai, where a culture change is long overdue – a message the Garda Ombudsman's Office has been attempting to signal for some considerable time.

Leadership defects lie at the root cause of any group's shortcomings because those in charge are responsible for setting and maintaining standards. Where those standards fall short, it's obvious where the rot originates.

In the case of the gardai, the leader has gone – Martin Callinan has resigned in dramatic fashion. But does his shadow linger over the police force? His departure, as dramatic as it was necessary, does not remedy the core problem that public trust in an arm of the State has been shaken.

Politician after politician queued up in the Dail yesterday to express respect for the dedication of rank-and-file guards, who put their lives on the line in the course of their duties. But.

The 'but' was unspoken, yet it was the elephant in the room. Its presence cannot be ignored. 'But' refers to the erosion of confidence in the gardai and by extension in their implementation of the rule of law.

Public trust, already shaken by a raft of revelations, was damaged further by the news that some 2,500-plus illegal recordings of phone calls to and from garda stations have been made and stored since the 1980s.

This causes alarm bells to ring on various levels, not least because a fair number of people must have known about them. But one bell in particular is triggered by the question: what use was being made of these recordings?

Furthermore, the existence of the recordings reopens the debate, brushed under the carpet rather than resolved, about whether or not the Garda Ombudsman's office was bugged.

Clearly, the way in which the gardai are managed demands root-and-branch reform. Simply because An Garda Siochana has been in existence since the foundation of the State doesn't mean it should be put on a pedestal. Or allowed to operate without oversight. Or its actions taken, at all times, in absolute good faith. The Caesar's wife rule, in which all associates of public figures must be above suspicion needs to be applied.

The gardai must be held accountable, and this is not to denigrate any serving member. Guards have a considerable amount of authority over other citizens – it is not alone just, but prudent, for them to be answerable as to how that power is applied.

Yet the gardai have reacted negatively to the idea of external oversight. The Ombudsman has already spoken out about a lack of cooperation with its work, even in relatively minor areas.

Transformation must take place under a new Commissioner bringing the rank-and-file with him or her. However, the issue now is whether any senior member of the gardai is in a position to carry out that much-needed and comprehensive overhaul.

Are they too embedded in the system to take the necessary tough steps? Even if they have the capacity to try, would they be able to restore general trust – or would people view them as insiders who will always protect the gardai above the public interest? In the Dail yesterday, the question of garda mismanagement was raised by Alan Shatter during his speech, when he bit the bullet and apologised to the whistleblowers. (It was quite an anti-climax, in the end. I hope the Justice Minister makes a more generous mea culpa in person to Maurice McCabe and John Wilson – they deserve better.) Issues identified in the Garda Inspectorate report were summed up by Chief Inspector Bob Olsen as "managerial and administrative dysfunction" noted the minister.

Management failure is a phrase that crops up repeatedly in relation to the gardai.

Presciently, the Morris Tribunal observed that when trust is absent and management infirm, damage ensues. But while the Morris Tribunal into complaints against gardai in Donegal made its final report in 2008, promised reforms remain to be implemented.

This deficit was flagged up almost a year ago by the Garda Ombudsman, a body formed as a result of that long-running corruption inquiry. However, the pattern is for gardai to turn hedgehog in the face of criticism – fundamentally, its senior staff resent being held accountable.

Yet a fully accountable, modern and respected police service is not just an ideal, it is a necessity. A functioning democracy demands it.

Sometimes, the gardai seem to be mired in the 1970s, not least in their suspicion of change. Even the sight of senior officers in all that braid, caps jammed down on their heads, at the Public Accounts Committee, smacked of a bygone age. The PSNI and the UK police have abandoned such affectations. Finally, this story is so fast-moving that the public and the media – not to mention politicians, as Leo Varadkar acknowledged – are bewildered about who knew what and when. But there's no confusion over this: the cumulative effect of the penalty points affair, the disgraceful way the whistleblowers were treated, the revived question of bugs in the Ombudsman's office and revelations about illegal recordings in garda stations – none of that litany of failure burnishes the gardai's reputation. And the fault lies with its leadership. With the fish head.

Two objectives should be prioritised now. The public deserves reassurance, while the gardai deserve leadership – and not the macho culture of leadership of the past, or a highly politicised leadership, either. Both of those elements must be left behind. The needs of the public and the needs of the gardai should not be mutually incompatible here. Time to get cracking on Operation Transformation.

Irish Independent

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