Wednesday 29 January 2020

Battle for the soul of An Garda Síochána can only be won by ending the cosy culture that prevails

Problems to address: Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Problems to address: Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

In practically every case of institutional scandal and failure over the past decade, subsequent inquiries have concluded that, whatever else was wrong, ultimately a debased culture was the root cause.

The latest example is the Garda Inspectorate's finding that a culture of "fear and blame" pervades An Garda Síochána, disturbingly right up to and including senior ranks.

You can tell you are dealing with a cultural problem rather than a technical difficulty, such as a faulty structure, inefficient processes or IT that is 30 years out of date, when the problem seems intractable, recurring again and again, and when repeated attempts to sort it out come to nothing.

In attempting to address these enduring failures in vital national institutions, an all-too-common road is followed in Ireland that itself reflects a dysfunctional political culture.

First there is an internal inquiry which invariably finds nothing seriously wrong beyond perhaps "administrative" or "systems" failure.

As more facts emerge, and public disquiet grows, there may be a second internal inquiry which again fails to satisfy. An external inquiry by a 'safe pair of hands', such as a retired civil servant, may ensue.

If this doesn't allay public concerns, the Government appoints a barrister to review the previous inquiries and perhaps to do a 'scoping exercise' with a view to a possible judicial enquiry.

In the end, the truth rarely comes out because witnesses could not be compelled to appear or the final report is redacted, which means names and whole paragraphs blacked out, on the advice of the Attorney General.

Even if the truth does eventually come out, there are rarely personal consequences for those who were responsible; quite the opposite, in fact: they are more likely to be spirited into a new, well-paid job or to receive a golden handshake.

CEOs ultimately determine the culture of an organisation and for this reason many have argued that an outsider be appointed as Garda Commissioner, someone who was not around in the bad old days, who has no baggage and has no loyalties forged over 20 to 30 years serving with colleagues.

But it is not as simple as that, particularly in closed systems like the senior civil service, the gardaí or the Catholic Church.

Those who have risen to senior positions precisely because they were masters of the prevailing dysfunctional culture will tenaciously protect their ground.

They may lie low while the heat is on from the latest damning report, even creating the impression that a new ethos is taking root.

But it is only a matter of time before the empire strikes back, reasserting the power and values of the old guard.

So, whether a commissioner intent on driving reform comes from inside, like Nóirín O'Sullivan, or from outside, they can be neutralised or seen off the premises by a small number of well-placed die-hards.

In this context, the recent Inspectorate finding, that even senior gardaí do not feel safe in speaking out, suggests that a battle for the soul of An Garda Síochána is being waged.

It looks like a contest between reformers and a cabal who have been roundly criticised in a catalogue of reports from the inspectorate, judges and other authorities.

One indicator of the insidious nature of the inherited culture has been the defiant opposition to the oversight bodies put in place specifically to hold gardaí to account and to drive reform.

Literally hundreds of recommendations set out in 11 Inspectorate reports remain unimplemented.

Recently, Justice Mary Ellen Ring, who chairs the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), felt compelled to call for legislation that will force the Garda authorities to cooperate with GSOC's investigations into garda misconduct.

Can anything be done to break this apparent impasse?

Here are some ideas:

Adopt the strategy imposed by the Financial Regulator following the implosion of the banks and require that every senior garda or anyone going for promotion meets explicit criteria of both competence and probity.

Questions regarding probity might include, for example, 'what part did you play in the widespread cancellation of penalty points?'

Or, 'how were whistleblowers treated on your watch?'

Or, 'how would the inspectorate describe the level of co-operation it received from you and people under your command?'

Every three months, bring together the hundreds of recent and soon-to-be-appointed garda recruits to discuss any gaps between the values inculcated during their training and what they are experiencing at the local garda stations to which they are assigned.

Simply scattering new members to the four corners of Ireland, without ever bringing them back for regular debriefing and reinforcement of garda core values, means that they inevitably will imbibe the prevailing discredited culture through the 'hidden curriculum', complying out of fear, just like their more senior colleagues.

When he came to clean up banking regulation, Matthew Elderfield said that powers of "invasive scrutiny and effective sanctions" were essential. Neither are yet fully developed in the suite of internal and external structures, HR tools and legislation intended to provide effective garda accountability.

Ms O'Sullivan recently published an impressive 13-point reform plan and, tellingly, she lists as the No 1 priority the need for cultural change.

This declaration is unprecedented and could be a game-changer.

A survey of the culture of the force is envisaged and, while this is worthwhile, the full array of other hard-hitting instruments of cultural change need to be brought to bear.

These include the system of promotion, the recruitment of new blood at senior levels and the above-mentioned Elderfield provisions, especially effective sanctions.

It has just been reported that the GSOC inquiry into allegations of a campaign by senior officers to smear whistleblower Maurice McCabe "has been stopped in its tracks because of a legal roadblock".

If true, what a farce.

For this deeply damaging saga ever to come to an end, it is imperative that Judge Ring's request be granted in full and other necessary instruments provided, in order to tip the balance in favour of the reformers.

Cultural reform is possible, as evidenced by the transformation of the RUC into the PSNI, so it can be done here.

But only if there is the political will to do so.

Irish Independent

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