Friday 20 September 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Harris faces bumpy ride as he drives through his reforms'

Commissioner in the spotlight over crash in PSNI jeep but there are more challenges to come, writes Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Drew Harris's first six months behind the Garda Commissioner's desk in the Phoenix Park have been a bumpy ride.

Not least because of the bizarre bollard incident which saw an unmarked PSNI 4x4 vehicle, carrying the Commissioner, damaged as it was entering Garda Headquarters.

After days of press coverage, the commissioner was forced to issue not one, but two statements, outlining exactly what happened. In the final press release, they said a "newly installed bollard malfunctioned" and caught the underside of the vehicle the Commissioner was travelling in.

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Could happen to anyone, and pride was the only thing that was properly damaged.

But it wasn't really about the damage done to either the Commissioner or the jeep bringing him back to Dublin after a weekend in Northern Ireland. What raised eyebrows was the fact that the Commissioner of An Garda Siochana was being chauffeured around the Republic of Ireland by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

It was not widely reported, but the PSNI jeep was accompanied on the journey from the North by a Garda Emergency Response Unit vehicle. It's not clear if it was also accompanied on its way back to the North.

Most reasonable people on the island of Ireland are all for cross-border cooperation by both police forces, but similarly they believe there are lines that should not be crossed.

The fact the former Deputy Chief Constable is being ferried around the South by his former colleagues is undoubtedly a departure from general protocol - simply because Mr Harris is the first PSNI man to oversee gardai.

However, arrangements have been in place since 2013 which allow armed PSNI officers travel in Ireland and gardai in Northern Ireland under some circumstances.

The relevant authorities have to be informed ahead of any operation, as was the case two weeks ago.

There is also a serious high-level threat to the Commissioner from dissident republicans who would see any attack on Mr Harris as a major coup for their demented campaigns of terror.

However, the incident has rankled with some serving and retired members of the force. A senior serving officer told the Sunday Independent: "The Commissioner needs to realise he is now a member of An Garda Siochana."

Justice Minister, Charlie Flanagan, was quick to defend Mr Harris last week and is known to be a firm supporter of the new Commissioner.

Mr Harris has certainly endeared himself to the Taoiseach and ministers right across Government since he was appointed.

Ministers are impressed by the fact he can make hard decisions, without fear or favour, because of the distance between him and his fellow officers.

In the Phoenix Park he is not surrounded by Assistant Commissioners who he passed out alongside in Templemore College, or served with in Tallaght Garda Station.

The culture within in the force, which was bred by the collegial nature of the job, was to take people with you when you moved up the rungs of the ladder.

When you become a superintendent, you make sure to appoint some of your pals as sergeants or inspectors. Naturally, people wanted to be supported by those they trusted when they are in positions of power.

But it led to undue favouritism when it came to appointments. A lot of this has changed in recent years with the establishment of the Policing Authority, but appointments still have to be signed off by the Commissioner.

As Mr Harris is surrounded by people he has known only for the past few months, it makes it far easier for him to make decisions based on merit.

It also allows him make unpopular operational decisions, which in the past would have been met with resistance by senior officers.

For example, he decided to cut the Garda overtime budget just before Christmas, which was not a popular move among officers of all ranks.

But the Government was delighted. Here was a Commissioner trying to control the Force's finances and reduce the need for a supplementary budget for unnecessary overtime.

Of course, the Garda representative bodies would say this will stifle investigations into serious crimes. Rank-and-file gardai on the lower end of the pay scale are also unhappy with loss of income. In the upper echelons of the force, Mr Harris is still an enigma to the Assistant Commissioners who roam his court. They don't know what to make of him, and there is a belief that's exactly how the Commissioner wants it.

The Cabinet of Assistant Commissioners, who serve below Mr Harris, have been notoriously cliquey in recent history. In-fighting and back-biting plagued the tenure of Noirin O'Sullivan, and the latter half of Martin Callinan's career.

Mr Harris also likes to move quickly when there was a tendency under other commissioners to long-finger difficult issues. Not unlike the Government-proposed policy changes would spend months, if not years, being examined by committees. Reports would be drafted and reconsidered by another committee before being ignored.

A few weeks ago, Mr Harris decided gardai should be allowed to wear turbans or head scarves if they so wished. The decision was made and the policy was announced.

However, his judgment has been called into question on some occasions. The decision to suspend Assistant Commissioner, Fintan Fanning, pending the outcome of a Garda Ombudsman investigation, seemed rash. The well-respected Mr Fanning, who was the most senior member of the force to ever be suspended, took High Court action against Mr Harris over the suspension.

But he was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) before the case was heard. This case hasn't gone away, and the Commissioner may have to answer some awkward questions at a later date.

Mr Harris is taking a no-nonsense approach to garda discipline and there will undoubtedly be casualties along the way. Recently, he dismissed the outcome of a disciplinary review of a garda, who was filmed engaging in a sex act on the bonnet of a garda car. It had been recommended that he be fined, but the Commissioner insisted he should resign or be dismissed.

He has also put on hold the promotion of several gardai who are the subject of ongoing Gsoc inquiries.

"He's going to lose the dressing room with some of his puritan behaviour," another source added.

Mr Harris faces the difficult balancing act of forcing through his reforms of a police force recovering from years of controversy while not losing the dressing room, as he implements his shake-up of An Garda Siochana.

Sunday Independent

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