Friday 20 September 2019

Gardai want freedom to criticise government decisions

The Force is calmer since Noirin O'Sullivan's departure - but senior officers are plotting

'Morale has plummeted among gardai of all ranks at a parallel rate to public confidence in our police force. ' (Stock photo)
'Morale has plummeted among gardai of all ranks at a parallel rate to public confidence in our police force. ' (Stock photo)
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Noirin O'Sullivan dramatically stepped down as Garda Commissioner six weeks ago to the day. It brought to an end one of the most controversial periods in the history of An Garda Siochana.

Many within and outside the Force believe she was unfairly made a sacrificial lamb in repentance for the sins of others. Of course, O'Sullivan's life in the public eye is far from over. She will be taking the stand in the Disclosure Tribunal in the coming months, where she will be asked about her knowledge of an alleged smear campaign against Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. The tribunal has been rumbling on for a number of months but senior gardai expect things will become "really nasty" in the next phase of the hearings.

"I don't think we have reached the bottom as far as public confidence goes just yet and the next few months are going to be really challenging," a senior source said.

Apart from the tribunal, senior gardai are also bracing themselves for the publication of a review of how thousands of youth offenders who committed serious offences were handled by gardai. The Force's professional standards unit is reviewing 16,000 cases of young offenders who were refused entry to the Garda youth diversion programme because of the seriousness of their crimes.

The programme aims to keep young offenders out of the justice system by appointing them juvenile liaison officers but those who are refused entry are sent back to their local station for processing. There are fears the report will identify a worrying number of cases where the offender was not correctly processed by gardai and went on to commit more serious crimes due to Garda malpractice.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has been made aware of the report.

There is also the ongoing Policing Authority review of murder statistics.

The deluge of policing scandals has resulted in an innate fear of controversy among senior gardai. They have spent nearly four years listening to politicians making public calls for their heads. Morale has plummeted among gardai of all ranks at a parallel rate to public confidence in our police force. However, Noirin O'Sullivan's retirement has brought about an air of calm. Opposition politicians got their head and this has reduced political pressure from Government ministers.

In the Phoenix Park and at management meetings attended by senior gardai there has also been a significant change of focus. Assistant Commissioners feel they can be more upfront about the direction of the Force since O'Sullivan's departure. Senior officers were less likely to speak up under the commissioner over fears it would stymie their career progression but now feel they can speak their mind.

This is mostly because the acting Garda Commissioner, Donall O Cualain, has categorically stated he will not apply for the top job once it is officially advertised later this year. In fact, O Cualain last week began a retirement course which is available to gardai just about to leave the Force.

This has made management meetings more open affairs and debates have been more robust since O'Sullivan's departure.

There are certain senior gardai and cliques of officers manoeuvring ahead of the Government triggering the recruitment process for the top job. An outsider has not been ruled out but there are huge concerns about giving a non-Irish candidate the keys to the country's State security files. However, there is a growing acceptance that the Force's leadership may be split internally into a head of national security and a head of national policing who would both report independently of each other to government.

Former PSNI chief constable George Hamilton was being tipped for the senior Garda role but he has recently become embroiled in a misconduct investigation in Northern Ireland.

Internally, Deputy Commissioner John Twomey is the next in line for the Garda chief job but it is felt his chances of promotion will be damaged by his connection to the quashed penalty points scandal. Twomey oversaw the first internal report into the points controversy which showed up little or no evidence of widespread cancellation of fixed charge notices.

In the ranks of Assistant Commissioner, Eugene Corcoran, Pat Leahy, Barry O'Brien and Fintan Fanning are seen as likely to put their names forward once the Public Appointment Service begins accepting applications.

Former Criminal Assets Bureau chief Corcoran would be seen as the most politically astute of the candidates, Leahy's dedication to community policing is his strength, O'Brien is known for his work as a detective and Fanning's work with the Garda associations and his long list of qualifications will play to his advantage.

Whoever takes over from O'Sullivan will be expected to draw a distinct line between the Force and the Government. Senior gardai are tired of being forced to defend government decisions and budget cuts. They want a distinction drawn between the work of the guards and the work of government. They believe senior gardai, the commissioner included, should be free to criticise the decisions and actions of the Minister for Justice and Taoiseach rather than kowtow to their demands.

This, however, could push the Government towards appointing a more subservient outside candidate.

Sunday Independent

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