Friday 22 February 2019

We must look beyond these shores for a new leader to rebuild the Garda

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, flanked by Acting Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan, addresses the media. Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, flanked by Acting Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan, addresses the media. Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

James Downey

Bertie Ahern's government wasted the boom. Brian Cowen's government wasted the economic crisis. Will Enda Kenny's Fine Gael-Labour coalition waste the recovery?

The Taoiseach and his Cabinet have just a few days left in which to find a way to settle the Irish Water imbroglio. How long do they have to settle the dreadful condition of our police force as revealed in the searing report of the Garda Inspectorate?

Water is, of course, an essential of life. But the efforts involved in its supply are tiny by comparison with the priorities of a government.

Next to the fundamental task (not well handled in recent times in Ireland) of maintaining a country's independence and solvency come the lives and health of millions. Not just in crises, but in everyday life, we all depend on a satisfactory system of law and order, with the police in the front line.

The Garda Siochana has a curious history.

It was founded, courageously, during a civil war. At the beginning, it was closely identified with the ruling Cumann na nGaedheal party. Down to the present day, gardai giving evidence in courts still tell the judge that some dim-witted person they arrested called them "Blueshirts".

But the new force soon gained the respect and support of the people. That survived the change of government in 1932 and the numerous subsequent regime changes. Ireland was never free of cronyism and political interference. But it was regarded by the public as on an acceptable scale. We were one of the most law-abiding countries in the world.

Are we now in danger of throwing this pearl away?

The inspectorate report paints a grim, even a frightening picture. The Garda Siochana is on the brink of becoming dysfunctional, and in some respects may have already gone over the brink.

Morale is on the floor. Leadership - political and operational - is lacking. Middle management is overwhelmed by paperwork. Technology, an essential element of modern police work, is out of date.

One has to doubt the quality of training, the criteria for promotion and the performance on the ground. Crucially, it appears certain that the crime figures have been massaged.

Serious crimes have not been thoroughly investigated. It seems that little attention has been paid to domestic violence. The failure to tackle white-collar crime is notorious.

Very little of this is the fault of the men and women on the front line. The trouble lies chiefly with the political direction of the force and lack of knowledge or concern for its needs. This leads to idiocies like a shortage of transport. Investigators sometimes cannot reach a crime scene with sufficient speed simply because they do not have cars to carry them there swiftly.

Yet we have had no shortage of proposals for reform and improvement.

These are now urgent - so urgent as to rank at, or very close to, the top in any government's priorities. They must begin at the top - starting with the appointment of a new commissioner.

To find the right person for the time being, we should go abroad and find a man or woman who can start work with a fresh mind and no baggage. That no doubt would disappoint some worthy senior officers, but it need not set a precedent.

Next should come the identification of half a dozen young (or youngish) high-flyers. They would be given high promotion and demanding work. The right person would soon emerge.

Ideally, this would be someone with a big personality, great self-belief and a habit of getting his or her own way. Much the same is true for the Minister for Justice with whom the commissioner would have one of the most vital relationships anywhere in the administration.

Some might suppose that this bill would be hard to fill from among the members of the Cabinet - with the possible exception of Michael Noonan, who is otherwise engaged. But I have hopes for Frances FitzGerald.

She put up a good performance under intense questioning by Pat Kenny on Newstalk on Wednesday. She said all the right things. She was fluent, and evidently in command of her brief.

But on the bigger scene, she is still untried. She will need strong support from the Taoiseach and the Cabinet as a whole. All of them will need to learn, thoroughly and quickly, the language of political priorities. And this has not been a characteristic of Irish governments - certainly not the present one.

To some extent, that is forgiveable. The Government has been preoccupied with "legacy issues" - foremost among them, of course, the economic crisis

But there are others, of which the competence and the governance of the Garda Siochana must take first place.

And in an important and disturbing way, the Government's own position has deteriorated quite sharply in the last year. In (roughly speaking) the first half of its term, it profited like several of its predecessors from the docility of the population. This docility has lately come under severe strain.

Meanwhile, it has brought into question its own understanding of the relative importance of issues.

'IMMAgate' arose from an attempt to influence a trifling question, filling a seat in the Seanad about which hardly anybody cared.

We learn from John Walshe's recent 'insider' book about his time as a special adviser that much valuable time is wasted on disputes about "jobs for the boys".

If Ministers think that these absurdities can be ignored or forgotten, there is one thing they never forget, the next general election. This obsession may not promote good government. But it should concentrate minds.

Irish Independent

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