On Monday, a new policing plan for the future went into effect. We will now have fewer, larger Garda divisions. Six overarching regions will become four. Twenty-fourdivisions will become 19. That’s the architecture.
Senior management is to be streamlined, more gardaí will be on the beat and there will be a major investment of resources to ensure that ICT, transport, human resources, and accounting skills are in place to support effective management of larger divisions, which will, we are told, be more autonomous.
Whatever its merits, and it has merit, it is in no sense a plan. It is a proposal, specifically a proposal to the Government. The resources required to fund people and plant to support it, are, as of now, unprovided for. Garda Commissioner Drew Harris is only one of manyaspirants circling in a holdingpattern above the Department of Public Expenditure, waiting for permission to land. He is as likely to be diverted to the landing strip on Inis Mór as cleared to taxi in and land on Merrion St.
Competition for public resources is always fierce. Just this week,we learnt from Donal de Buitléir’s report into the care of privatepatients in public hospitals that ending private care in publichospitals will cost €650m per year for 10 years. That is not to speakof the cost of ageing for the health service and social welfare, before any additional services are provided for.
Third-level education is increasingly chronically underfunded. Here there isn’t even a plan. Peter Cassels and his expert group reported in March 2016. It has been circumnavigated by politicians since. There are only hard options. But there is an imperative purpose namely the future funding of a world-leading third-level sector that drives aspiration and equality in our society, and underpins an economy that can provide for us.
It isn’t known if Mr Harris has read Cassels, Sláinte Care, or de Buitlér, but he might consider having the collected volumes placed in his office as memento mori. There is a reality of power, and most plans do not progress far beyond their announcement. Not enough consideration is given as to how,traction can be gained against the grain.
There is an almost invariable underestimation of the use of time, as an agent of frustration. Then there is at its most cunning and corrosive the unarticulated obduracy of the discommoded. For this plan to succeed, a lot of very important people in An Garda Síochána must be discommoded. The day he discomfits his colleagues is the day the honeymoon is over for Mr Harris.
This is very much the still new-ish commissioner’s plan. It follows from years of crisis, and numerous other plans. There is the Modernisation and Renewal Programme 2016-2021, The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, and the 2015 report of the Garda Inspectorate which comes in at a modest 442 pages. There is overlapping oversight from the Policing Authority, the Garda Síochána Inspectorate already mentioned, the Garda Ombudsman, and the Department of Justice itself.
I can clearly remember a simpler structure. It included just the commissioner, the minister and the secretary general of the department. The taoiseach was included on significant security issues, and kept carefully briefed with intelligence relating to the North. But on policing, it was essentially an unmediated relationship between the commissioner and the minister.
It was a simpler structure — but it didn’t work because it couldn’t lead the cultural change required to reassure in a post-trust society. The depth of denial in An Garda Síochána, and the length it lingered on in relation to its own reputational loss is staggering. Among an older, more senior cohort, it hasn’t gone away.
The future, if it is to be different, has to marry effective policing,discipline, and accountability. It is only recently that the sum total of accountability required was from the commissioner to the minister, and the minister to the Dáil. The burden of accountability requires an intense investment in resources from the local station to the commissioner’s office. This was all mapped out in 2015. It is still a work-in-progress.
The gap between what is now lawfully required for accountability, and the skilled resources, not to mention IT, required to deliver it is the gap between the platform and the train for the Commissioner. The bigger gap still is the cultural attitudes that nod to necessary reform but haven’t internalised it.
In a command and control organisation, the limit of the commissioner’s power is clear. First is the power of the purse. He is on a fixed annual budget. He doesn’t have multiannual budgeting. His flexibility is severely curtailed because about 90% of his €1.6bn budget is taken up with pay and pensions. His discretionary budget after other fixed costs is minuscule. The single most important issue for Mr Harris, is the response of the Government.
This is a government that has come to the end of the road on spending. There are only degrees of retrenchment going forward. Failure to secure a serious spending commitment will prompt the sly sniggering in the officer’s mess that will do in more effectively, than any overt opposition, the prospects of this plan succeeding.
Presuming the money can be found — and that is a big if — the industrial relations issues are considerable. Moving gardaí between divisions, and deploying them within is a fraught and costly exercise. Allowances abound, and any flexibility too far from the station prompts payments, that system-wide rapidly amount to serious money.
Financial pressures are already downward on the Garda budget. The €10m cost to the force of US president Donald Trump’s visit, and the several million more that his vice-president’s visit will cost, won’t be carried for it, in a supplementary estimate. It doesn’t augur well.
The fiscal tide is receding, but an election looms. I recall the cynicism and bloody-mindedness with which the medical industry defended their lucrative trade, delivering sub-optimal treatments, in too many, too small hospitals. There will be a rear-guard action against mergers and moves around rural Ireland.
The connectivity of the higher echelons of the local constabulary should never be underestimated. There will be a nasty guerrilla war in places, and its timing will be everything.
The heat map for the Government is flashing bright red in key rural constituencies where Brexit will hit hardest: Beef is most important and broadband is a critical issue. Now overlay that with a platform for protest, or at least ill will, because the divisional HQ of An Garda Síochána is being moved into the next county.
The margins Fine Gael candidates have in those key constituencies is tighter than the margin for discretionary spending the Commissioner has in his budget. The opportunity for gain, by their opponents, is obvious. Mr Harris has to find the money. He has to create momentum and he has to get his plan to the other side of an election intact.