Friday 23 August 2019

Only political will can bring change to toxic Garda culture

Yates Country

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. Photo: Tom Burke
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. Photo: Tom Burke
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

Inertia is a peculiar response to crisis, yet judging by the recent spate of challenges to this country, a do-nothing approach seems to be the norm.

There is a predictable chain reaction that features: intense media controversy, followed by Dáil uproar. Then we get ministerial-commission reports, months of solemn scrutiny behind closed doors.

The net result of all of this is minimal change, and the old order is re-established.

Ireland's 'Accountability as usual' is a peculiar brand indeed. Whether it's tracker mortgages, judicial appointments, penalty points, homelessness or hospital trolleys - the status quo holds out.

The latest test will be the damning Police Authority report into fake breath tests. It confirms that ultimate responsibility lies with a flawed Garda management.

It revealed recorded inputs of 1.85 million non-existent alcohol tests were due. This was ascribed to pressure from on high. It resulted in complete confusion amongst call-takers at the Garda Information Services Centre (GISC).

It depicted a vista of front-line cops falsifying figures; an appalling absence of co-ordinated training allied to zero managerial supervision and oversight.

What is the result of these explosive findings? Currently, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan and the Garda Representative Association face a stand-off over sanctions against hundreds of gardaí who deliberately entered wrong data into the Pulse system.

Clearly such flagrant abuses must be pursued. The Garda top brass utterly failed to spot or stop fraudulent figures being filed from June 2009 to April 2017. For there to be no individual sanctions flies in the face of what justice is supposed to mean.

Two Garda commissioners left in three years because of political and public dissatisfaction. There was a perfect storm of controversy featuring the mistreatment of whistleblowers - resulting in an ongoing tribunal.

There were the irregular financial practices at Templemore training centre, and revelations about doctored crime statistics, along with the sustained failure to implement reforms proposed by the Garda Inspectorate - you wonder can things get any worse.

We need to focus now on who and what replaces Nóirín O'Sullivan in order to trigger the urgent need for a cultural transformation within the force.

There are many players centre stage with various roles: The Policing Authority (Josephine Feehily), the Commission on the Future of Policing (Kathleen O'Toole) and the Public Appointments Commission. This is all laid down under section 9 of the 2005 Garda Act, as is whether the future annual salary may exceed €180,613.

These groups may make determinations, but it's the faceless mandarins at the Department of Justice who pull the strings.

The most shocking public service recruitment process was the replacement of the secretary-general of the Department of Justice, Brian Purcell. It took two years to eventually give the post to the acting person, Noel Waters. Apparently no other civil servant outside of that department, nor anyone from the private sector, nor any international person, was better qualified.

All this despite a damning Toland report excoriating the department for its massive systemic failures and bunker mentality which cried out for external input.

It is hard to look past the Department of Justice culture as being central to the Garda crises. Its key job is overall Garda oversight of finances, ethics, personnel, legislation, management, leadership and regulation.

But there appears to be an ethos of secrecy and control.

It operates at its heartbeat through "national security" - it overrides politicians and all other departments.

This underperforming department must be confronted by Leo Varadkar and Dáil Éireann. It pretends to outsource problems to GSOC, commissions and the Garda Inspectorate - in reality, it has rigid control on critical decision-making.

If in doubt about the de facto power of the Department of Justice over both politicians and gardaí, read the evidence of acting Garda Commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin before the Public Accounts Committee. He promised to publish an interim Garda report recommending the opening of six of 139 closed Garda stations, amid the uproar over the reopening of Stepaside Garda station. Noel Waters bluntly vetoed any such publication because his department had a more "nuanced" report of its own. This culture of political control of the Garda is corrosive. It's also inimical to modern policing.

No surprise then that the department is currently knee-deep in managing the process of appointing a new Garda commissioner.

Specious arguments that you can't separate policing from security/intelligence are authored by the Department of Justice. Retaining its over-arching authority appears to be the priority.

But the USA and UK rightly boast of having the best global intelligence systems through the CIA/FBI and MI5/MI6. Other sophisticated intel operators include Russia's KGB and Israel's Mossad. The best international security structure norms separate policing and intelligence.

We're being sold an outrageous pup - that we can't separate administrative and political control of security and crime functions.

Apparently the department has successfully persuaded ministers and key 'reform' players that this critical segregation of intel reporting to the Taoiseach's department is off-limits.

These manoeuvres are invariably hidden from the public gaze.

Unlike the Charleton Disclosures tribunal.

The last testimony given by Tusla's Lisa O'Loghlen in relation to redacted reports was significantly interrogated by the insightful Justice himself, with a telling questioning reference to a possible cover-up.

One eagerly awaits the evidence from Superintendent David Taylor, John McGuinness TD, Philip Boucher-Hayes and Seamus McCarthy (Comptroller and Auditor General).

Ironically, the Garda legal teams primarily represent the two former gardaí, Martin Callinan and Nóirín O'Sullivan.

Within the force, internal senior Garda candidates jockey for the vacant commissioner post. Ms O'Sullivan's legacy is one of deep internal division in HQ. Maybe they should all reflect on their generation's legacy to the force. The only serious way to drive dynamic change is to headhunt and appoint an external chief from a common-law jurisdiction along with a balanced civilian management team of deputy/assistant commissioners.

As we approach the centenary of the forming of An Garda Síochána, Mr Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin are confronted with a choice. They either collectively face down the Department of Justice or continue with 'security as usual'. But critical change depends on that most precious and all too rare commodity - political will.

Irish Independent

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