Friday 17 January 2020

A chief's job is to lead, not sit and watch as calamity looms

By going abroad at a time of crisis, the force's senior officer has failed in her duty to a worried public, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

NOT HOSTAGE, BOSS: Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan. Picture: Caroline Quinn
NOT HOSTAGE, BOSS: Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan. Picture: Caroline Quinn

Eilis O'Hanlon

At 7am last Friday, members of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors started their threatened 24-hour work-to-rule.

Crimes were being committed. Crimes were being reported. Crimes were even being logged into the Pulse system by rank-and-file gardai - but there they stayed, as sergeants and inspectors refused to do their constitutional duty.

Naturally, the Minister of Justice must have spent that evening locked in talks with the Garda Commissioner on ways to ensure that public order is maintained when the real strike action begins in a few short weeks, right?

Wrong. The bad news is that Frances Fitzgerald was at Dublin's Citywest Hotel, watching Marty Whelan host some business awards. The good news is that the food was apparently delicious.

As for Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan, it's anybody's guess where she was, though she was finally back on Irish soil, having spent much of last week with the International Association of Chiefs of Police in San Diego.

A garda spokesman insisted the Commissioner was kept fully briefed about the ongoing situation during her trip to California and was in "regular contact with her management team". Which is nice to know, even if it entirely ignores how this looked back home.

Unfortunately, the Department of Justice also confirmed that not only have no contingency plans been finalised as to how the threatened all-out stoppage by gardai in November will be dealt with, but, even worse, that no discussions have taken place on this issue at all between the two most powerful women in charge of policing in Ireland.

Feeling reassured?

Didn't think so.

Rather than providing clarity and direction in the midst of chaos, the entire focus seems to be on reassuring discontented gardai that their superiors feel their pain, rather than on reassuring the public that there's an equally strong commitment to defend their non-negotiable right to a functioning police service.

The only information to leak from behind closed doors so far is that any back-up plan will not involve the Army.

Nor, presumably, will it involve the Irish Countrywomen's Association or members of Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club. Great. Now that we've established who won't be keeping the streets safe for the four days in November that gardai plan on leaving the country at the mercy of criminals, is there any chance of being let in on the secret of who exactly will?

To be fair to both minister and Commissioner, that would be difficult, since neither of them seemingly has the first notion what's going to happen next month. Their priority is negotiation, which is entirely the wrong way round. Their first priority is not to settle pay disputes, but to safeguard the security of the State's citizens.

There is widespread fear. Among the over-65s, which the recent household survey found to be most anxious about crime, not surprising when they're vulnerable and often live alone. Among rural dwellers, already stung by the loss of local garda stations. Among retailers likewise, unsure what the situation will be on the ground on strike days. And with no gardai to handle immigration checks, how are Irish airports supposed to function normally?

All these groups are justly concerned, and should be receiving urgent reassurance that those in charge understand their fears and are ready to stand with them, rather than siding with or appeasing the strikers. It's not as if they haven't had time to prepare.

Josephine Feehily, chairwoman of the Policing Authority, was seeking clarification at the end of September on contingency plans in the event of a strike. It's now nearly the end of October, and still the Garda Commissioner acts as if she is a well-meaning bystander to all this, just hoping that it all works out for the best, rather than the most senior police officer in the country.

The Garda Commissioner is not the representative of the gardai in their dealings with the rest of the world. They already have union representatives and tame TDs for that.

She is their boss. She is meant to be in charge of the force, not held hostage by them. She should be holding the line, not holding their hands. If she learned nothing else from her trip to San Diego, it should have been that.

The slogan of the International Association of Chiefs of Police is "serving the leaders of today, developing the leaders of tomorrow".

The bland corporate speech is rather revolting, but at least it recognises that being a police chief is about exercising authority and command.

That's where Noirin O'Sullivan is falling down, by going abroad at a time when they need strong captains at home.

The Garda Commissioner should, without equivocation, be telling gardai planning to go on strike that their actions are unacceptable, whatever grievances they may have over pay. Putting on the blue uniform is not the same as any other job. You can't just withdraw your labour if your labour is integral to the safety of every single person.

If the teachers or bus drivers go on strike, it's an inconvenience. If the police go on strike, it's a potential tragedy. What next? Should the Army be allowed to walk out, too?

The Garda Commissioner cannot stop the gardai striking, but she could be out there, reminding her officers that they're servants of the people, not the other way round; and that their planned actions are, as such, a serious and insupportable breach of discipline; that there will be consequences for those who go on strike; and that she is determined to take whatever steps are needed to minimise the effects of their decision.

If nothing else, it would concentrate minds wonderfully. People would know that the country cannot be held to ransom, and strikers would get a timely reminder that they don't hold all the cards.

Sunday Independent

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