We must dig deep to root out the force's cultural malaise
Plans to reform An Garda Siochana must ensure a culture change radical enough to restore its reputation
Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan concedes that massive, country-wide inflation of drink-driving test numbers and the wrongful conviction of 14,700 people for motoring offences revealed "individual and collective ethical failure" in An Garda Siochana.
Individual ethical failure comes down to character and, given the career-wrecking price paid by individuals who dare to challenge malpractice by colleagues or, especially, Garda bosses, it is unreasonable to expect the average garda to make this sacrifice. Speaking out has been not just risky; it carried with it the near certainty of retribution. The roots of the problem are in the "collective".
The Policing Authority, echoing the Commissioner, spoke of "lack of integrity and moral failure" and, like dozens of reports on similar scandals over the last 20 years, attributes responsibility to "poor management and supervision". The Morris Tribunal concluded that the can of worms unearthed in Donegal was not down to a few bad apples in the North West. Management at headquarters and elsewhere also had questions to answer.
Who then are the people who constitute this "collective" that lacks integrity and has failed morally? The extent of falsification of drink-driving test numbers and the quashing of thousands of penalty points would suggest that the "collective" is more or less the whole 13,500-strong Garda force, but this would be a wrong inference. The "collective" that matters is the top brass, the phalanx of up to 20 uniformed officers and civilian officials whom we regularly see on TV answering questions, or not, about the latest scandal.
This group and their colleagues of similar rank set the moral tone and ethical standards of the force. It is they who epitomise the culture of the organisation. It is they who communicate the "hidden curriculum" which new recruits quickly discover they need to comply with if they are to survive. It is they who over decades perpetuated this culture by an internal promotion process that inevitably favoured those who showed themselves to be a "good cultural fit", "one of us".
Before the Policing Authority was ready to take over responsibility for promotions to senior ranks (other than Commissioner) last January, the Commissioner had made numerous promotions, including 17 just days before the transfer of this responsibility to the authority. There had been understandable frustration about long delays in filling key vacancies, but this pre-emptive move in December 2016 was interpreted widely as showing disrespect for the new Policing Authority.
But this was nothing new. The "collective" consisting of the top 100 or so officers has shown disregard repeatedly for bodies established to exercise oversight of the force. Earlier last week, the Policing Authority was moved to angrily demand, by the end of this week, information that was being withheld by the police.
A few months ago, the chair of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), Judge Mary Ellen Ring, felt she had to threaten to summons senior officers for failing to provide information to the GSOC. This is the "collective" whom the authority castigated in January for failing to implement more than 400 recommendations contained in 11 reports compiled over the previous 10 years by the Garda Inspectorate; and it is the same cadre of high-ranking gardai who, in their various operational and HQ roles over the past decade, oversaw rampant massaging of crime figures and other irregular practices.
If there is any validity to this analysis, there are some very important implications. First and foremost, it is not just about the Commissioner. Her 13-point reform plan for the force is testament to her commitment to change. The problem is that she and her senior colleagues, who are predominantly good people striving every day to do their best, are trapped in a cultural web - a deep-seated malaise that they have inherited and that permeates the fabric of the gardai.
Culture does not just "eat strategy for breakfast", as they say; it eats everything. Garda culture devours internal and external inquiries and reports, as well as new computer systems, like Pulse, which are rendered useless when gardai routinely input false information.
Garda culture has thwarted legitimate oversight structures, as just mentioned, and frustrated efforts to recruit more civilians into the force.
A second implication is that a deeper incision than heretofore is needed to dig out the roots of the cultural malaise that binds the hierarchy together and continues to spawn one scandal after another.
All senior officers should have to reapply for their jobs in a competition open to outsiders, civilians and police, in order to achieve about a 25pc intake of new blood. If only a handful of outsiders are appointed they will be seen off the premises in no time by those who would have much to lose in such a shake-up. Note how experienced judges, policemen and civilians appointed to the GSOC, the Inspectorate, and the Policing Authority have been given the runaround. And seasoned politicians likewise.
A radical intervention of this kind was key to the textbook reform of the RUC to create the PSNI and we are deceiving ourselves if we think we need anything less.
A related deep intervention would be a sustained series of workshops to re-educate gardai about the foundational values and ethics of the force that have been casually betrayed and that need to be re-embedded into their day to day work and relationships.
This process would start with the top 100 officers and subsequently cascade down the chain of command. The "Culture Audit", about to get under way, as No 1 priority in the Commissioner's 13-point reform plan, could be a good starting point for this transformative programme.
Currently, the force is in the middle of a major recruitment programme which will see up to 1,500 newly minted gardai appointed. The finest young men and women are being selected from among tens of thousands who applied. It is vital that there be a process to ensure that this large cohort of new gardai be protected as far as possible from inculcating the dysfunctional culture. This could be done by bringing them back regularly to be debriefed about their experience on the job and to reinforce core values. This once-in-a-generation opportunity to seed a new culture from the bottom up must not be missed. Finally, 'dysfunctional families need outside help'. Reform from within, led by a hierarchy which has been formed in a closed system for 30 years or more, is very rare. Parallels with the Catholic Church come to mind, and in the Garda radical reform now seems unlikely without a significant external presence and support. That said, however, there is no need for yet another "external root-and-branch review", as promised by the Taoiseach. Instead, a team, such as that led by Kevin Toland who produced, in a matter of weeks, a searching critique of the Department of Justice, should be assembled to synthesise the numerous existing reports and recommendations.
Most of this synthesis is likely to overlap with the Commissioner's own plans but the external input would lend it more force. Everyone knows what needs to be done. It is time to get on with it and give the Policing Authority the powers it needs to hold senior officers accountable, that is accountable with consequences, for implementing long overdue, necessary reform of An Garda Siochana.
Eddie Molloy, PhD, directs masterclasses in strategy, large-scale organisation change and innovation