Saturday 19 January 2019

The challenge isn't lambasting Garda failures, it's changing an insular, defensive culture

Garda Commisioner Noirin O' Sullivan arrives at the The Policing Authority on King Street North Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Garda Commisioner Noirin O' Sullivan arrives at the The Policing Authority on King Street North Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The excoriating statement released by the Policing Authority after its meeting with the Garda Commissioner is a hopeful sign that the new body will effect real change in the force. However, An Garda Síochána has weathered blistering criticism before without meaningful reforms being instituted.

The first Morris Tribunal report, into Garda corruption in Donegal, was published in 2004 and found that the culture in the force "militates against open and transparent co-operation with investigations" and "manifests itself in a policy of 'don't hang your own'".

A further report, in 2006, referred to "appalling management" and the "manipulation of facts and circumstances in order to present to Garda Headquarters, and to the world at large, an untruthful appearance of honesty and integrity in the Donegal Garda Division".

In a prescient remark, Mr Justice Frederick Morris warned that if senior Garda management did not implement and champion significant structural reforms, the malaise that had been identified in Donegal would spread like a virus to other regions.

He concluded: "In the tribunal's opinion, proper discipline has been lost from An Garda Síochána. Without a managing structure being restored to the gardaí, based on strict compliance with orders and immediate accountability, the danger is extreme that what the tribunal has reported on in Donegal will be repeated and such conduct will multiply if allowed to go unchecked."

The then justice minister, Michael McDowell, expressed shock at the findings of the tribunal and assured the Dáil that "reform on an unprecedented scale" was being undertaken by senior Garda management, which would restore the public's trust in the force.

He said: "My experience is that the appetite for change within the force itself is strong at all levels.

"I do not doubt the commissioner, deputy commissioners and assistant commissioners fully recognise the need for far-reaching reform of the way the force is managed."

Regrettably, Mr McDowell's confidence in the reforming zeal of senior gardaí was misplaced.

In 2013, the Smithwick Tribunal, into alleged garda collusion in the killing of two RUC officers in 1989, published yet another damning report, which said it was "disheartening and depressing" to find that the culture in the force remained as corrosive as ever.

It found: "There prevails in An Garda Síochána today a prioritisation of the protection of the good name of the force over the protection of those who seek to tell the truth. Loyalty is prized above honesty."

This was a reference to the treatment of retired chief superintendent Tom Curran at the tribunal. Mr Curran stated that he had warned an assistant commissioner of possible collusion between gardaí and the IRA in 1987 but that "he didn't want to hear it" and no investigation was launched.

Conceding that the then garda commissioner, Martin Callinan, was "entitled to cross-examine witnesses as he saw fit", Mr Justice Peter Smithwick said the treatment of Mr Curran nevertheless caused him "concern". He continued: "Without it ever having been put to Mr Curran on behalf of the garda commissioner that he was lying or mistaken, questions were asked of both him and other witnesses which, in my view, were clearly designed to cast doubt over his evidence.

"I can only assume that instructions to adopt such an approach were given on the basis that the garda commissioner did not like what Mr Curran had to say.

"Tom Curran retired as a senior officer and he struck me as an officer of the utmost integrity.

"I would have thought he is as deserving of the support of the garda commissioner as any other former officer. However, it seems to me that because he was giving evidence of which An Garda Síochána did not approve, such support was not forthcoming."

Notably, the same concerns about the treatment of Mr Curran at the Smithwick Tribunal have resurfaced again in leaked transcripts from the O'Higgins Commission of Inquiry, which indicate that counsel for Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan was instructed to attack the motivation and credibility of Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

Unlike the O'Higgins inquiry, hearings at the Smithwick Tribunal were held in public, which could explain why the legal strategy employed by the force featured in one report but not the other.

However, it is troubling to think that a legal strategy, which was directly criticised by Mr Justice Smithwick, could again have been adopted within a few short years the next time garda malpractice was the subject of a statutory inquiry. In its statement last week, the Policing Authority said it raised the issue of the leaked transcripts with Ms O'Sullivan and she outlined the legal constraints that she claims preclude her from frankly discussing the instructions she gave her counsel.

Therein lies the problem for the Policing Authority. It was set up to hold An Garda Síochána to account but may find it is powerless to answer a very simple question - was the treatment meted out to Sgt McCabe at the O'Higgins inquiry appropriate, as the Garda Commissioner has claimed?

Reports by former PAC chairman John McGuinness of a clandestine meeting with Mr Callinan in 2014, when he was told Sgt McCabe was not to be trusted, and which he inexplicably kept to himself until now, further undermine Garda claims Sgt McCabe was supported.

Many have heralded last week's stinging criticism by the Policing Authority as a sign that change is finally on the horizon, but the truth is there have been a multitude of critical reports in the past 12 years that have briefly caused headlines before being ignored.

The Policing Authority itself has noted this, saying it was dismayed "at the familiarity of performance failures through various inquiries and reports" - report after report making the same criticisms of work practices and culture but with nothing ever changing.

The challenge for the Policing Authority will not be publicly lambasting well-documented failures of An Garda Síochána, but ensuring that there is a change in its insular and defensive culture, so that reforms which are put in place are successful.

Irish Independent

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