Saturday 16 December 2017

Glut of Garda crises calls for a change of culture at top of force

Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Paul Williams

Most of us encounter gardaí only when we need them - in other words when we are victims of crime or we require documentation (such as passport applications) witnessed.

When you do need the Garda you would like to see an agile, quick response by officers who are well equipped, motivated and led from the front.

That's why the current crises which have enveloped the force leave one wondering how can the officers at street level possibly deliver an effective service when there is dysfunction in the top echelons.

Now, a Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland has been unveiled and described as the most comprehensive root-and-branch review since the establishment of An Garda Síochána in 1922. The 12 commission members (average age 61) are faced with a task of enormous proportions - they have 18 months to examine every aspect of policing and produce recommendations in a blueprint for the future.

Despite a string of tribunals and commissions of inquiry, the Garda force has become mired in scandals - the latest of which is the one million bogus breath tests and the complex financial chicanery at the Garda College.

More recently, there's been the investigation by this newspaper which showed the force was playing fast and loose with the regulations around telephone wire taps and in effect eavesdropping on entirely innocent people.

There's also the unsettling revelation by the 'Sunday Independent' that a decorated detective was transferred out of the force's intelligence section after he raised concerns the phone tap on a political activist was put in place for "political purposes". Now it has been left to commission chairperson Kathleen O'Toole and her disparate group of professionals and academics to source and cure the myriad problems at the heart of the organisation.

It makes me wonder:

How can a commission whose members' average age is in the 60s possibly get to grips with contemporary policing problems?

How can it set a vision for the Garda into the 2020s?

What is its experience of cyber crime and the scourge of social media deviancy?

Who among the members has experience of policing Temple Bar or any provincial town centre at 1.30am?

Why aren't there any experienced street cops or detectives (even from outside Ireland) on the commission?

Nonetheless, this commission will examine the structure, oversight and accountability of the force, including its culture and ethos. Also under consideration in this wide-ranging investigation will be whether An Garda Síochána should continue to have responsibility for State security and immigration or if these tasks are allocated to separate bodies.

This group will also have to look at the Garda's failure to be inclusive of the many civilians in its ranks. I have always detected that many (not all) officers treat their "civilian" colleagues as second class, even though their work is just as vital as frontline street or detection policing. It is a bit like a consultancy firm where accountants look down their noses at engineers. It simply does not make sense; everyone should feel part of the one organisation and equally valued. Unfortunately that, in my experience, doesn't generally happen in law enforcement.

It is noteworthy that a decision was made to establish this enquiry before the Garda Commissioner's appearance before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) when she was openly contradicted by one of her civilian deputies, John Barrett. The apparently irreconcilable differing accounts centre on a meeting at which Mr Barrett raised with Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan and her uniformed deputies the issue of a complex web of bank accounts and questionable financial activities in the Garda College.

At the PAC, Ms O'Sullivan said the issue was briefly mentioned over a quick cup of tea and lasted a few minutes. Mr Barrett contradicted the Commissioner by claiming there had been a two-hour meeting to discuss the financial irregularities, producing detailed memos and notes from that meeting and several others.

While we will have to wait for the Commissioner's response to these allegations at a forthcoming PAC meeting, this incident has exposed an apparently fractured management tier at Garda headquarters.

Morale among the frontline Garda responders who police our streets is as low as I have ever experienced - including the bitter civil war that split the Garda Representation Association right down the middle in the early 1990s.

Officers are also trying to carry out their duties with decades-old technology and depleted numbers - in the face of an increasingly sceptical and demanding public. Ms O'Sullivan is one of the force's most experienced detectives who led numerous successful operations against the biggest drugs traffickers in the State. She will be acutely aware of the problems on the ground. These, however, are now issues that Ms O'Toole's commission will have to confront. She herself has a major job of work to do convincing citizens that her group can deliver change, given that reports she drew up in her previous job in the Garda Inspectorate are still gathering dust in Garda HQ and the Department of Justice.

It is noteworthy that one of the younger commission members is Dr Vicky Conway. In her 2014 book, 'Policing Twentieth Century Ireland: A History of An Garda Síochána', she argued that many of the serious problems embedded in the organisation are attributable to the Government's controlling influence.

The law lecturer and criminologist was critical of the controversial, and in my opinion deplorable, 2005 Garda Síochána Act, brought in by former justice minister Michael McDowell.

She argued it politicised the organisation even further. I agree and I think it set in motion the circumstances which led to a greater siege mentality in the force which in my view made it harder for whistleblowers to be heard.

Her warning that a failure to implement reforms based on the recommendations of the Morris Tribunal would lead to further scandals proved prescient.

Reports are fine. Strategy, tactics and culture are the real drivers of change.

Culture comes from the top, from the CEO. In the case of the Garda, that is the Commissioner.

It ultimately lies with whoever he or she is to implement real and positive change, leading from the front.

Paul Williams is also the co-presenter of 'Newstalk Breakfast'

Irish Independent

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