Thursday 23 November 2017

Enormous gulf between undervalued lower ranks and senior managers at the heart of crisis

Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan Picture: Collins Dublin
Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan Picture: Collins Dublin

Paul Williams

When, or if, the garda representative bodies cobble together a deal with the Labour Court, which brings them back from the edge of a potentially catastrophic strike, it will only represent a deferral of a much bigger crisis in our national police force.

An 11th-hour deal will be a bit like putting a sticky plaster on an infected wound, or administering an aspirin for a brain tumour.

Again, if - and it is a big 'if' - the GRA and AGSI are talked down from the ledge, it will necessitate an urgent and genuine in-depth investigation to establish why our rank-and-file police officers, and their immediate managers, felt compelled to contemplate breaking their solemn covenant with the State and its people.

The threatened strike action has to be interpreted for what it actually is: an expression of pent-up, deeply-felt frustration, anger and demoralisation.

This unprecedented headlong lunge to the edge of the industrial relations abyss amounts to a cry for help.

It is a consequence of a deliberate effort to completely undermine and dismantle the professional integrity of our gardaí on the streets that has accumulated over several years.

Since the recession kicked in they have been forced to do more work on vastly reduced pay and a lack of resources that leaves visiting representatives from other police forces in western democracies astonished.

Then there has been the deafening chorus from political detractors indiscriminately spouting allegations of corruption and malpractice, the most serious of which have been either proven baseless or not as grave as originally claimed.

The gardaí are sick and tired of being used as political pawns and the water protests are a prime example of this. Officers were ordered not to defend themselves when they were spat on, assaulted and threatened because if they took defensive action it might look bad for the Government of Enda Kenny.

This industrial action has as much to do with their treatment at the hands of an indifferent Government and a politicised top management that is deluded, dysfunctional and disconnected.

In such a post-mortem the roles of both the Garda Commissioner and the Justice Minister should be placed under the spotlight.

Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan and her inner-circle of loyal acolytes cloistered in Garda HQ in the Phoenix Park - cynically dubbed 'The Kremlin' by every guard outside its gates - have remained insouciant to the plight of their staff.

Her 11th hour intervention in the impending industrial dispute which has festered for several weeks and months (some would say years) came on Tuesday when she ordered her superintendents to find out how many gardaí would not be at work on Friday.

Then she issued a directive to every individual member ordering them to be at work.

It had the effect of convincing several gardaí, who were not going to participate in strike action, to change their minds.

But the most appalling act of bad judgment was Ms O'Sullivan's decision to attend a week-long conference in San Diego at a time when she should have been in Dublin drawing up contingency plans for a mass withdrawal of police cover.

The Californian jolly was greeted with even more incredulity when it emerged that her deputy has been off work due to ill health. To the ordinary man and woman in blue, the optics of all this are atrocious and even more evidence of the chasm that has developed between them and their leadership.

The Garda Inspectorate's in-depth report, Changing Policing in Ireland, did what Garda management never did: they interviewed gardaí across the ranks to hear their opinions and concerns.

What they found should have caused alarm bells to ring in Garda HQ and in the Department of Justice.

It described how the lower ranks feel undervalued by a management that was more concerned with 'self-preservation' rather than acting in the best needs of the organisation.

The prevailing cultural dynamic was described by gardaí as being 'insular', 'defensive', which had caused a 'gulf between gardaí and senior managers'.

These factors are what lies at the heart of the current crisis in our police.

The performance of Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has also left a lot to be desired.

It is extraordinary that after two-and-a-half years she has still not appointed anyone to the job of secretary general of the Department of Justice.

How can you administer one of the most challenging and difficult portfolios in the State if you cannot find someone suitable to run it?

Politicians from all parties are now openly talking of the spectacular mess being made by Fitzgerald and O'Sullivan.

In particular, Garda management appears to have lost the confidence of the legislators with many in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil now accepting for the first time the job of Garda Commissioner should go to an outsider; something that was unthinkable even a few months ago.

If the fundamental issues underlying this unprecedented crisis are not adequately addressed once and for all then expect to get used to the sight of your local gardaí patrolling the streets outside their station armed with a placard.

Irish Independent

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