Sunday 22 September 2019

Paul Williams: 'Fundamental flaw in the plan is that Harris didn't consult Garda members'


Paul Williams
Paul Williams

Paul Williams

The new operations model for An Garda Síochána unveiled yesterday by Commissioner Drew Harris has been heralded as the most significant and fundamental reorganisation of the force since the foundation of the State.

Harris effectively landed the much-anticipated plan, A Policing Service for the Future, as a fait accompli, marking his ground by demonstrating his determination that this is going to happen irrespective of what anyone in the organisation might think about it.

He resolutely defended his plan by declaring without equivocation that the time for talking about policing reform was over, that there had been "enough comment" and he was "not proposing to wait" any longer.

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The former RUC and PSNI officer was unwavering when he said the plan is "at the point of implementation" and "the rubber will hit the road" on Monday when the first - and certainly the least controversial of the proposed reforms - will take place with the reduction in the number of Garda administrative regions from six to four, thus reducing the number of Assistant Commissioners.

Within three years this plan will see Garda districts completely disappear, along with their superintendents, and become subsumed into the 19 super divisions that will emerge to replace the existing 28 divisions.

It is envisaged that each of these super divisions will have just one chief superintendent and up to four superintendents to cover much larger geographical areas.

Real threat: A road Block at Gortinacarrow, Co Fermanagh, after a bomb exploded just inside the Northern Ireland Border earlier this week. There are heightened fears of renewed violence if a no-deal Brexit goes ahead. Picture: Kyran O'Brien
Real threat: A road Block at Gortinacarrow, Co Fermanagh, after a bomb exploded just inside the Northern Ireland Border earlier this week. There are heightened fears of renewed violence if a no-deal Brexit goes ahead. Picture: Kyran O'Brien

This, Harris promises, will reduce the number of chief superintendents and superintendents in the organisation and free up 1,800 gardaí for frontline policing, with emphasis on community policing.

There is one fundamental flaw in all of this: the Commissioner did not consult any of the staff associations representing the people who will have to make the sacrifices in order for this to work.

In particular, the Commissioner has added insult to injury by pointedly not sitting down with the people who will be most affected - the superintendents and chief superintendents whose work and responsibilities are to change so radically.

If nothing else, it is an example of poor people management at a time when we are potentially just two months away from a no-deal Brexit and the real threat of a resumption of terrorist violence, not to mention the fact organised crime also poses a continuous threat to the security of the State.

Many current and former members of the Garda could not hide their anger and astonishment at the fact that officers who have worked hard and distinguished themselves, during careers that have spanned an average of between 20 and 30 years each, have not had that loyalty repaid.

Even the people sitting around the big table in Garda HQ with Harris as he drafted this plan - those of assistant commissioner rank upwards whose number will also be cut - have been mumbling misgivings about the implications for the organisation, particularly its ability to provide adequate policing cover.

But the Commissioner is unlikely to hear much criticism of the plan from his higher staff as there is a competition in the offing for promotion to the position of Deputy Commissioner which carries a five-year contract that exempts the compulsory retirement age of 60.

Some have described the initiative as akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What seems to be forgotten here is that the abolition of Garda districts and the resulting reduction in supers and chiefs will have major implications for governance and accountability in the organisation.

It also carries the risk of achieving the opposite of its central objective, that of improving community policing and relationships with urban and rural communities, which has already happened in the UK.

But there is also likely to be a considerable political backlash against the new operational plan once local community organisations and business groups around the country realise they will no longer enjoy easy access to the local superintendent when there is a problem. Nor will they be happy that nine of the current divisional HQs in major provincial towns will be downgraded with the highest ranking officer an inspector.

Change is always difficult and is inevitably resisted in conservative organisations like the police but this plan seems to risk going too far.

Senior gardaí and the rank-and-file have reacted by stating their disbelief that it will free up 1,800 gardaí for frontline duties. It also has implications for morale as Harris's streamlined force will no longer offer the same promotional opportunities and career advancement in an organisation where the rookie garda has a chance of making it to the top job.

Irish Independent

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