Thursday 17 January 2019

Garda force doesn't need huge RUC-style reforms

Drew Harris is expected to bring in his own team, which is sure to put some noses out of joint in Garda headquarters

Landmark appointment: Drew Harris’s role as the new Garda Commissioner is causing much debate
Landmark appointment: Drew Harris’s role as the new Garda Commissioner is causing much debate

Eilis O'Hanlon

There's a scene in Neil Jordan's film about Michael Collins when a group of hard men from the old Royal Irish Constabulary are despatched to Dublin to put down the gathering War of Independence.

"There's a new regime in here," their leader declares as he heads out of Dublin Castle to a waiting car, "and it's starting now." (That last word being pronounced in that classic strangulated Ulster way that makes it sound more like "nigh" or "niy").

His last words before climbing into the car are: "A bit of Belfast efficiency is what they need."

The car promptly blows up, presumably killing them all. It's a curious scene, playing murder for laughs in a way that appears to have been included simply to play on certain prejudices in the audience.

Many of the objections to the appointment of Drew Harris as Garda Commissioner for the next five years seem to be coming from the same place of resentment and suspicion. Until he takes up his new role in September, Harris remains a Deputy Chief Constable in the PSNI, and he received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) from the Queen in 2010.

These details are enough to raise hackles among the usual suspects, who have tried to insinuate that he might be a security risk because of the PSNI's role in anti-terrorism policing in Northern Ireland.

It may be that a separation of civilian policing and security needs to be looked at again, albeit that the Taoiseach immediately insisted the current set up would remain; and even that it would be appropriate to ask what guarantees Drew Harris may have given to his former employers in the North as to what he can and cannot divulge about his time there. But that is an entirely separate argument from Drew Harris's background. Suggesting that his interests might somehow be antithetical to those of the Irish State is so far-fetched as to be almost comical. Some of the Angry Brigade on social media and on the fringes of Irish politics who are circulating these whispers are the same ones who demand that people living in the North of Ireland should be treated equally with everyone else on the island, including having the right to vote in Seanad and Presidential elections. As soon as one of them is appointed to a key role in the State, they start screaming about outsiders, as if suddenly infected with a bad bout of "stranger danger". These geniuses undermine their own argument about the singularity of Irish identity.

They're the ultimate partitionists; and in a week when Sinn Fein launched a new policy document against sectarianism, insisting that we should all see ourselves as members of "One Community", the message being sent out by some of their supporters is basically that "Themmuns", as Northerners describe those from the other side, can't belong to our community, go away and stay with your own community, because you're not welcome here. Not exactly joined-up thinking.

That sneaky subversion of trust in the new Garda Commissioner is already being encouraged by Sinn Fein, which, whilst initially welcoming his appointment through gritted teeth, has now started to suggest that Drew Harris needs to prove himself. Mary Lou McDonald went into full tribal throttle: "He has to demonstrate that he in no way subscribes to the toxic, vindictive policing culture which necessitated the disbandment of the RUC." It's interesting that Mary Lou is prepared to take this line, and risk being seen as backtracking on the party's official support for the new policing dispensation in the North, while knowing it will only confirm suspicions that the Sinn Fein leadership ultimately takes its orders from elsewhere.

Perhaps it's that party which needs to prove it has put sufficient distance between it and the "toxic, vindictive" culture of the IRA which murdered Harris's police officer father in a car bomb in 1989.

Here's the thing, though. It's possible to be unhappy with the appointment of Drew Harris without giving credence to every crackpot conspiracy theorist who thinks that the former RUC man will establish a permanent line to MI5 to undermine Irish independence, breaching the oath to uphold the Constitution and law of the land that he will swear on taking office.

The biggest reason for dissatisfaction is because it's a slap in the face to legions of decent police officers in An Garda Siochana who've hung in there through the worst years, doing their best to change what's wrong with the Garda from within. What they've effectively been told by appointing an outsider to the role is that they're not good enough for the job, and that their efforts to reform and open up the Garda and to make the case for accountable, efficient, community policing are not worth any acknowledgement or reward.

It's welcome that it wasn't a civilian at least, which had been speculated for a time. The job is not just about managing staff and resources and pushing through structural reforms; it involves unique challenges that only a career-long experience of policing at the highest level could provide - and Drew Harris has that in spades, both on the ground in dealing with major incidents and at a political and procedural level working with the European parliament committee on organised crime. That's not the issue. There's no reason to fear that he won't make a fine Commissioner, leaving An Garda Siochana at the end of his five-year tenure a better force.

The issue is the ammunition which it gives to the most extreme critics of the Garda, who'll be confirmed in their view that the organisation was unreformable from within, when the truth is that no internal candidate has ever been given the authority and proper political support to undertake that mission. The controversies which have plagued the Garda in recent years, such as financial irregularities at the Garda Training College and the faking of breath tests, are not so huge that they weren't fixable with the right application of political will.

As for the ongoing commission of inquiry into allegations that senior people inside the force organised a whispering campaign against whistleblower Garda Maurice McCabe based on false and lurid accusations, Justice Charleton's recommendations when they're published - like those of the Commission on the Future of Policing when that reports too - could have been implemented every bit as thoroughly by someone who's spent their career working for the Garda inside the country's borders than for a different police force outside them. They just needed support to do it.

In a way, it's pointless having this argument. Deputy Commissioner John Twomey and Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy, who were also on the five-person short list, probably never stood a chance.

As soon as the appointment of a new Garda Commissioner became necessary, non-national candidates were always going to be at an advantage, because going outside the State ticks all the right boxes, being superficially forward-looking, trivially innovative, showily internationalist. It's the easiest way of marking a change of direction, and while the Government had no direct hand in the procedure, being able only to accept or reject the choice made by the independent appointments board, the first Commissioner from outside the State definitely chimes with the Taoiseach's instinct for novelty. The only people who seem to have been left out of the official thinking were 13,000 existing gardai.

That Drew Harris is expected to bring in his own team will also put some noses out of joint in Garda headquarters, and why wouldn't it? "Morale is on the floor", it's said, but it's hardly likely to be sent rocketing skywards by this vote of no confidence. The fact that he's a former RUC man might be problematic in that respect, though not for the reasons given by critics of this decision.

It's not that the PSNI cannot be trusted, but that it sets up a false equivalence between An Garda Siochana and the old RUC. It's saying: the RUC needed root and branch reform because, associated as it was mainly with one community, it didn't command sufficiently widespread support in Northern Ireland - so appointing someone with experience of that process leads to an expectation that An Garda Siochana might be in need of an equivalent urgent metamorphosis.

It needs reform right enough, but its defects are in no way comparable to those of the RUC, and it would do the Garda a serious disservice if Drew Harris's appointment led observers to a different conclusion.

Sunday Independent

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