A trustworthy police force - An essential relationship is broken

A SOCIETY that loses faith in its police loses one of the cornerstones to a decent society. 

A society without trustworthy police can sustain democracy for only so long. A society that cannot believe that its police force is honest, efficient, impartial and informed by an easily-recognised civic morality is fundamentally vulnerable.

Equally, a society that imagines its police force will never reflect human weaknesses is deluded. Any society that pretends its police, men, and women just like the rest of us, are not susceptible to the challenges facing everyone else is unrealistically optimistic.

Most societies hope to strike a balance between the occasional disappointment and standards that demand a resolve most of us struggle to sustain.

Any sensible society knows there will be a rotten apple or two in most barrels but right now, in this small Republic, that paradigm is dangerously out of kilter. The needle has been stuck in the red end of the dysfunction-and-distrust gauge for far too long.

Not even the incredibly delicate, almost neutral language used by Assistant Commissioner Michael O’Sullivan in his report on 1.5m invented breath tests published this week can hide that disheartening fact.

Just as with toxic banking scandals of a decade ago, “system failures” rather than individuals are to blame. There is nothing in our history to suggest that we will not swallow that pathetic, implausible defence hook line and sinker one more time.

That this report was issued only after Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan demanded its publication is another indication of how ingrained the culture opposed to accountability is at the highest levels of the force. It is believed Garda authorities intended to sit on the report until Policing Authority consultants considering the same controversies had completed their work. There are many reasons Garda hierarchy might want to do this but not many are admirable.

The minister’s edict suggests the faith the Government expresses in Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan is more symbolic than substantial. Should the Policing Authority unearth a new skeleton or two, and it may, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and Labour calls for the commissioner’s dismissal could hardly be ignored. This seems likely as the relationship between the Government and the commissioner, who applied for but failed to secure a senior Europol position, has broken down.

The Policing Authority was established to oversee An Garda Síochána and facilitate a new level of accountability. This policy change, entirely in keeping with modern democracy, reflected a tougher approach. Despite this clearly-stated intention, the authority is not satisfied with the cooperation offered by the force. Just like the Garda Inspectorate and the Garda Ombudsman it has run into an impenetrable blue wall.

This stonewalling alone might be enough to fire the commissioner but who might replace her? All senior officers who, because the drink driving scandal and poor management practice stretching over many years, are implicated.

It is almost impossible to underestimate the scale of the challenge these issues represent. We are at a “who-rules” crossroads as significant as any in our history.

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