Sunday 8 December 2019

The gardaí are in crisis and the confidence of citizens is slipping away

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan Photo: Mark Condren
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan Photo: Mark Condren
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

The most useful ground rule for running an organisation to high professional standards is a simple one - agree to nothing in private that would cause embarrassment if it became public knowledge. It's a principle which flies straight to the core of transparency.

Do Garda top brass understand the importance of this modus operandi? Recent whistleblower allegations cause some concern that the traditional default setting remains in place - it's 'our' force and good governance is for namby-pambies.

Consequently, this question of how properly or otherwise the Garda is governed continues to cause trouble. Do senior gardaí persist in believing the force belongs to them and not the State, so that anyone who criticises it from within is disloyal?

If such is the case, is it possible that some of them regard whistleblowers as fair game for bullying, intimidation and isolation?

We simply don't know because the Gardaí continue to offer resistance to external oversight.

This we do know, however. If the force was being reformed as thoroughly as we were assured, it would not now be facing into another judge-led inquiry.

The fact that one is looming shows something gravely amiss both in the chain of command and the culture.

To guarantee legitimacy, a police force needs high standards of policing and to be held accountable for them. Internal wrongdoing must be rooted out. Whistleblowers have to be taken seriously and their claims investigated promptly and thoroughly.

Otherwise, it would be no surprise if the public began to regard its police force as a dysfunctional organisation suffering from a siege mentality.

Alarm bells are sounding at a new wave of disturbing charges within months of the O'Higgins report, which confirmed whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe as a Garda of integrity and commitment.

More whistleblowers are emerging to make admissions to the Department of Justice under protected disclosure, suggesting a smear campaign was orchestrated against the sergeant by high-ranking officers.

Let's be clear. Sgt McCabe has done the State some service. But not everyone may see it that way.

The previous Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, described whistleblowers as "quite disgusting" and it is entirely possible that his DNA remains imprinted on some Gardaí in the upper echelons.

Public confidence in the guards, who police us with our consent, is starting to turn somewhat shaky. Consider the current crop of whistleblower allegations in tandem with a threatened strike next month for the first time in An Garda Síochána's 94-year history. Manifestly, a proud tradition is undergoing a crisis.

A previous Justice Minister and Garda Commissioner have departed because of this crisis - but the same issues continue to bubble away.

We are told reforms are in hand but have not fully taken effect. A bit slow, you might think. Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan is two years in the job next month.

If proven, the allegations on her watch are extremely damaging. Equally harmful is the claim she knew about such activities.

She insists she didn't - a denial which positions her between a rock and a hard place because she ought to be fully across what's happening in the organisation. In short, where does the buck stop?

One way or another, the whistleblower allegations raise doubts about the quality of leadership within the gardaí.

No wonder morale remains low among the rank and file.

Lessons from the recent past appear to have been ignored. For malpractice and cover-up claims to need investigation all over again, so soon after previous scrutiny, does little to build trust in the Gardaí.

Not much sign of a new broom there. Rather, it hints at rugs lifted by the corner and problems swept under them. You can but wonder what else lies beneath them.

Commissioner O'Sullivan has articulated the need for reform and I have no doubt she has the best of intentions. But changing a long-standing culture is not easy - especially for someone who was part of that ethos for 35 years and deputy to Martin Callinan.

Perhaps an outsider to push through root-and-branch reform was needed all along, as many voices urged when the vacancy occurred.

At her appointment, there appeared to be some Garda relief about an insider being chosen - not necessarily a good sign. The Garda Representative Association spoke approvingly about leadership being found from within.

Reform takes determination. Appointing insiders rarely leads to genuine restructuring, however.

They have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, even as they talk about letting in the antiseptic of fresh air. Inevitably, they are on close terms with senior staff and may not be keen to cast a wintry eye over the activities of longstanding colleagues.

The problems in the gardaí are less urgent than those which led to a loss of confidence in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Nevertheless, the challenges to be overcome were greater north of the Border - yet the Police Service of Northern Ireland (the RUC's replacement) is a shining example of successful reorganisation.

Crucially, new blood was brought in. Hugh Orde was a high-ranking Metropolitan Police officer when he took over as Chief Constable, and went on to deliver on his brief.

Two years ago, the previous government shirked the opportunity to appoint an outsider committed to Garda reform - someone less likely to care that worms found under upturned stones might tarnish the organisation's reputation. Is this why we are back where we started?

As for those judge-led inquiries, they are becoming too common. It seems odd that a senior civil servant - already on the payroll - doesn't read the evidence, interview all concerned and write a memo to the Justice Minister instead. Whichever course is adopted, Commissioner O'Sullivan needs to stand aside voluntarily while an investigation takes place.

Issues bedevilling the gardaí must be tackled urgently. Without genuine reform, as opposed to window-dressing, they will continue in a state of crisis. Meanwhile, other Garda whistleblowers will be deterred from sharing essential information.

We are entitled to a police force wedded to the concepts of accountability and best practice. A police force with a culture which circles the wagons when valid criticism is raised, or is indignant if a serving member turns whistleblower - that's in no one's best interests. It serves neither guards nor citizens.

Irish Independent

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