Sunday 25 September 2016

Policing watchdog faces a 'go along to get along' culture in Garda Síochána

Eddie Molloy

Published 02/06/2016 | 02:30

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan Photo: Frank McGrath
Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan Photo: Frank McGrath
Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin Photo: Kyran O'Brien

About 15 years ago, I spent a week in a country house hotel, co-facilitating a strategic planning process with the 35 Catholic bishops serving in Ireland.

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As the week unfolded, with little progress being made on many serious issues, one of the participants quietly remarked to me, "You know you cannot pour new wine into old wineskins," quoting Jesus and adding in explanation, "You will never get change through us, we and our structures are at the root of the problem."

The bishop who made this candid and illuminating observation might have added, as the Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin did latterly, that "the culture of clericalism" is the biggest obstacle to reform.

Over the past decade, investigations into a litany of institutional failures have concluded that the root cause of recurring and seemingly intractable problems, and the main obstacle to reform, was a dysfunctional culture in every case.

Two years ago, the Toland Report was scathing in its commentary on the culture in the Department of Justice. Toland's team cited as the number one problem the department's "closed, inward-looking, secretive, silo-driven culture", and their first-listed recommendation was for: "A programme of fundamental and sustained organisational and cultural change and reform".

And now the Independent Policing Authority reaches a similar conclusion about An Garda Síochána: a dysfunctional culture underlies the "systemic performance and management failures", not least the repeated failure to implement the recommendations of numerous previous reports. Culture doesn't just "eat strategy for breakfast"; it gobbles up whole reports and obstructs implementation.

Deep cultural reform is always difficult but it is doubly difficult in 'closed systems' like the police, the church and the civil service, where people rise to the top on grounds of competence, no doubt, but especially because they are deemed to be "a good cultural fit", and where there is little scope to bring in new blood at a senior level who might challenge the status quo and end this cloning process.

Consequently, genuine reform from within is very rare, especially in closed systems. Where it does occur, the defining quality of leaders is a readiness to confront their own tribe, the mates with whom they have soldiered together, perhaps for decades.

More often than not, outsiders need to come in, such as in the case of the RUC or Hiqa, the health service watchdog, people who have the necessary expertise but not the loyalties and other baggage that might inhibit them making tough decisions on promotions, resource deployment or discipline.

Crucially, whether they are insiders or outsiders, it is essential that there be transparent, public accountability for implementation, overseen by a supervisory body that not only has teeth but uses them. Recent trenchant criticism of Garda management by the Policing Authority suggests this vital element is now in place.

Provided a critical mass of senior Garda officers views the new Authority as an ally, then there are grounds for optimism that long overdue reforms will happen.

If on the other hand, 'the empire strikes back', instinctively reflecting the inherited culture of closing ranks and shooting the messenger, then there is a very difficult road ahead for all concerned.

Ultimately, it will be a test of political resolve.

Concerns have been expressed that "all this criticism is damaging the morale of decent gardaí who are doing a difficult and dangerous job every day."

Well, nothing is more disheartening for rank-and-file staff in any organisation - be they gardaí, priests or whatever - than to discover that the values and standards which the institution purports to stand for are being violated by those at the top.

A catalogue of reports, from Morris, through Smithwick to O'Higgins, reveal that this is exactly the experience of many young gardaí.

Having been recruited because of their intelligence and character and then sworn to uphold the values inculcated during training in Templemore - like honesty, the rule of law and impartiality - they find on deployment to the field that the hidden curriculum takes over.

The managerial culture exposed in all these reports prevails and, unless they take the real risk of speaking out, they have little option but to 'go along to get along', a deeply depressing predicament for any young professional.

The new Authority calls for an audit of the culture of An Garda Síochána. This should be followed by the same kind of sustained programme of cultural change recommended for the Department of Justice.

Incidentally, it would be reassuring to get an update on progress in implementing the recommendations of that report two years on. Or have the old wineskins seen Toland off the premises?

Eddie Molloy is a management consultant and author

Irish Independent

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