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Garda would still be a dysfunctional force if Commissioner was gone in the morning


Nóirín O’Sullivan’s days as Garda Commissioner may be numbered

Nóirín O’Sullivan’s days as Garda Commissioner may be numbered

Nóirín O’Sullivan’s days as Garda Commissioner may be numbered

The breakneck rush to have the head of the Garda Commissioner on a plate within days is a classic Irish solution to an Irish problem.

Never mind getting to the root of the difficulties, let's make somebody "accountable", get them to walk the plank and then we can all charge off to the next big controversy with barely a backward glance.

According to Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald, "only in Ireland" would politicians be standing up debating whether or not the commissioner should remain in her job. But only in Ireland would that be seen as the key issue.

Unlike the British, we mightn't 'do' resignations in this country, but boy do we love a good public lynching.

None of this is to suggest that Nóirín O'Sullivan is not deserving of scrutiny or even criticism. There are obviously hugely serious question marks over her handling of the Maurice McCabe controversy - questions that will be dealt with by the Charleton Tribunal. And the latest revelations about wrongful convictions for motor offences and, arguably far worse, the jaw-dropping one million phantom breath tests, are genuinely shocking.

They not only happened on her watch, but the manner in which the story was disclosed and her response to the controversy over the past couple of days have been seriously lacking. The absence of any explanation or answers as to how the breath-testing figures ended up being inflated by 100pc is inexcusable.

And the language she used in her briefings was at times excruciating. Talk of being on a "journey" is fine from 'Dancing with the Stars' contestants and judges - not from the chief law enforcement officer in the State.

It does seem that Ms O'Sullivan's days as Garda Commissioner may be numbered - a matter of 'when' and not 'if' she moves, or is moved, on. It would seem that a majority of the TDs in the Dáil do not have confidence in her. Even allowing for the obvious political grandstanding of some, that's hardly a tenable situation in the medium term.

But there's a real danger in the current climate that this will become an end in itself. Her departure in isolation will do nothing to tackle the crisis that exists in An Garda Síochána. Forget the clichéd soundbites from politicians about the fish rotting from the head, the problems in the force were there long before Ms O'Sullivan was in a management role and they run far deeper than any one person or even any small number of individuals.

Despite everything that has emerged over the past couple of decades - the scandals in Donegal, Blue Flu, the underestimating of crime rates, the over-estimation of detection rates, the dubious reclassification of crimes, penalty points, the treatment of whistleblowers, the million breath tests that never happened - gardaí continue to have extraordinary public support.

That's because of all the credit the force has built up since the foundation of the State and, it should be said, the innate decency, sensitivity and bravery of the vast majority of those who don the Garda uniform.

Barely a week goes by without some individual story of their dedication to duty, whether it's James O'Donoghue, whose admirable and proactive perseverance in searching Vartry Reservoir for evidence played such a pivotal role in the conviction of Graham Dwyer; the regular stories of off-duty gardaí intervening to prevent serious crime; the dedication to public service of Mr McCabe; or the men and women facing down the public-order threat posed by criminal gangs.

But equally, there's no question that, collectively, the force has lost its way. Cutbacks and a lack of resources can only explain so much of the sloppiness, the dysfunctionality, the lack of professionalism, the ass-covering, the circling of wagons, and the blatant malpractice that has been highlighted in recent times.

As the Policing Authority put it, there are serious concerns about how gardaí go about their work on a daily basis. And it's not just a statistical matter, it's an ethical one.

The recent strike threat from both the GRA and the AGSI was arguably the most obvious manifestation of that. The threat was unprecedented in the developed world. It was also, in light of the Horgan Report's figures showing average Garda pay was already €68,000 a year, utterly unjustifiable. There's no getting away from it: it was a breach of the oath taken by gardaí to uphold the law and the Constitution. In the crudest sense, it worked. The Government caved in. Gardaí got a hefty pay increase. But the whole affair seriously compromised their moral authority.

If Ms O'Sullivan resigned in the morning, all these problems would still remain. They run far deeper than any one person.

There is a very persuasive argument that the next commissioner should come from outside An Garda Síochána. The culture of the force needs to change, and only somebody who has not been immersed in that culture can really bring that about, the argument goes.

It's a valid one too. But, if there is a "rotten management culture", as a TD put it yesterday, it would be naive to imagine that one outsider alone can counter that and overcome the obvious resistance to change and reform. At the very least, the new commissioner will need to be able to bring in his or her own personnel in senior positions.

The entire management structure, which seems to currently ensure little or no culpability for senior officers, needs to be looked at. And if the Dáil is serious about really tackling the serious problems in the force, then everything from top to bottom needs to be assessed and analysed. How, for example, can the prevailing ethos, where questioning of the actions of a colleague is regarded as disloyalty, be eradicated? How can the values that across the board tolerate blatantly inaccurate policing statistics be transformed? And how can morale, so clearly at rock bottom, be lifted?

These are big questions that require careful and measured consideration, not a rush to judgment. They certainly won't be answered by a motion of no-confidence in the commissioner.

Ms McDonald suggested yesterday that anyone who believed the culture in the Garda can be changed with Ms O'Sullivan in charge "is in cloud cuckoo land". Perhaps. But anyone who believes it'll be changed simply by removing her is inhabiting an equally unrealistic fantasy world.

Shane Coleman presents 'Newstalk Breakfast', weekdays from 7am

Irish Independent