Without question, An Garda Síochána has been one of the most respected of our public institutions in the country, present scandal involving Sgt Maurice McCabeexcepted.
Many of its members have, to borrow a military euphemism, embedded themselves in communities up and down the country and as a consequence are especially prevalent, particularly in the realm of sport where many have given generously to coach under-age teams.
Not an inconsiderable number have represented their county at All-Ireland hurling and football level with distinction.
An Garda Síochána is also one of the most corrupted public institutions in the country, with a corruption localised within the upper echelons of the force from where it permeates down.
This is not corruption as it is traditionally known or understood, where there is dishonest or fraudulent conduct, typically involving bribery. This is instead a systemic corrosion and it is the procedures for promotion and advancement within the gardaí which are the well-springs fromwhich it originates.
It has always been a truism that progression within the force was dependent on two factors: Patronage and “team spirit”.
Patronage simply means having someone of higher rank within the job or pre-eminence within a political party who can vouch for a candidate when they apply for promotion.
Team spirit or initiative are deliberately nebulous terms designed by management and which feature particularly on applications for vacancies within the job.
The sole function of such management-speak is to covertly separate in advance those deemed eligible for promotion from those who are not.
But from an examination of this most corrupt of practices within the job can one see the true extent of the problem affecting the organisation, a problem which Judge Frederick Morris, in the Tribunal bearing his name, pointedly noted 12 years ago had “remained unchanged for over seven decades”.
The promotion-charade begins when a vacancy is advertised via internal circulars. Potential candidates are invited to submit applications for the position, noting the criteria for initiative or team spirit or some such other bland corporate-jargon terminology lifted from the pages of a secondary school business textbook by a HQ flunky.
But nobody is fooled by what Charles De Gaulle once described in a political context as “this absurd ballet”.
Everyone knows that when a job becomes vacant it is not really vacant, for it is already destined for some favourite candidate somewhere, a candidate who has shownthe requisite degree of slavish obedience and an unthinking determination to follow orders without question.
These therefore are the primary attributes which Garda management value in a candidate.
Those who are prepared to demonstrate servility without question (code for keeping the lower ranks in line) flourish accordingly.
Those who are not wither on the vine. Nevertheless, when a vacancy arises the weary ruse must be carried through and sham interviews must be conducted to fulfil civil service legal requirements that a position be advertised to all, lest some upstart institute High Court proceedings.
If there is one thing that petrifies management, it is the nightmarish thought of being called to account before the High Court. The sham interview process has been so fine-tuned over the years that gardaí are adept at determining, often months before interviews commence, who the successful candidate will be.
Yet candidates still march forward to throw their hats into the ring. Why so if the result is not in doubt? Because a failure to apply for a job, even a job which you know you cannot possibly get, regardless of your excellent credentials, will be thrown back at you at some future date as evidence of a previous “lack of initiative”.
There is nothing that the job dislikes more than a lack of initiative in a candidate. Hence the soul-destroying practice, undertaken by many able but failed candidates, of sitting pointless examinations and attending humiliating interviews every year only to be rejected each and every time.
This indignity is magnified by the sight of lesser-able candidates, usually company-men, scurrying with ease up, as Harold MacMillan called it, the greasy pole of promotion.
These company-men will form the future leadership of the force and their followers, usually as limited as they, will be directly behind them, thus ensuring a perpetual cycle of mediocrity and banality, choking the rarified air amongst the upper echelons of the force to the exclusion of men and women who may have superior talents but who are shut out by dint of lacking all patronage.
An example of which I have personal knowledge is illustrative. In the late 1990s, I was attached to a station in a busy Midlands town. One of the station’s senior detectives announced, in February or March one year,that he would retire the following December.
We were all disappointed as he was a gentleman without fail, quiet but effective and always with a spare moment for greenhorns such as myself. His decision made, thoughts then turned as to who might succeed him.
Within two months we had our answer. A sergeant from outside the town was appointed to a vacant position within the station.This man was known to play golf with a very senior member of the force in the area. We all knew immediately that this was to be, regardless of the formality of interviews, the successful candidate.
As dispiriting as all this was, men still put their names forward for an interview which they knew was already decided. One candidate stood head and shoulders above the rest.
He (John — not his real name) was a man with significant crime-fighting experience in Dublin, a veritable walking encyclopaedia of criminal law and respected to the point of reverence by his colleagues, including myself.
John too decided to demonstrate his initiative by applying for the job that really wasn’t on offer but he was kind enough to tip some of us off in advance that he was doing so for no other reason than a sense of morbid curiosity.
The contrast between John and the golf-mad drone who succeeded to the position was the starkest I had ever witnessed in the force: One man deserved the position because of demonstrable and accepted excellence, the other was so incompetent — I cannot overstate this — as to have no business applying in the first place. No prizes for guessing who was successful.
John had the good grace afterwards to tell us how the interview had progressed. To ensure that the right man got the job, the three-member interview panel was headed by the senior officer whose golfing pal was also in the running.
To head off the patent absurdity unfolding whereby somebody with years of serious crime experience was being jettisoned in favour of somebody with none, the senior officer asked John whether “if another job somewhere else came up would you be prepared to take it?”
John smiled and asked:“Why? Is this job already taken?” The senior officer turned red-faced and spluttered “No! No! Of course not! We’re still holding interviews!”
We all laughed when John recounted this story to us later, but the laughter was ironic and bitter. Starkly, perhaps fatally, the realisation had struck, after less than two years in the job, that no matter how hard you worked, no matter how well you did your job, your career progression in the gardaí was predetermined at birth, at the moment you passed the wrought-iron gates of Templemore Training College.
In the aftermath of this event (variations of which are manifest in every Garda district throughout the country) a colleague (“James”) and I spoke at length about how the job had been misrepresented to us when we joined.
Gloomily we both noted our lack of patronage but this realisation must have been especially difficult to bear for James, for he had excelled academically in Templemore and was a rigorously hard worker.
The following year I transferred to another station where I noted the same bare-faced cronyism and patronage flourishing within the job and similar levels of apathy and disenchantment amongst the rank and file.
The disillusionment was especially marked amongst young members, gardaí with less than three years of service whom I frequently overheard talking about “the pension”and the promised land of retirement.
All this after three years in the job. I began studying law by night. At the same moment James began studying to become a barrister. Seeing no future for myself I resigned from An Garda Síochána and became a solicitor. James also resigned. He is now one of the leading trial barristers in the country.
An Garda Síochána, an organisation for which I retain great affection and in which I have many good friends, has a darkness at its heart.
The atrocious allegations made to Tusla about Sgt McCabe are a case in point, but they are merely representative of the blight at the core of an organisation which allows such behaviour to flourish.
The fact that someone felt this scandalous allegation would somehow please his bosses higher up is indicative not only of a contempt for the rule of law and a determination to silence a brave dissenter, but is evidence of a wider, much more dangerous culture of contempt for the public, a culture where somebody felt this was acceptable and not, as any rational human being would, as being utterly abhorrent to contemplate, much less act upon.
As Justice Morris remarked all those years ago, this is a breakdown of command leadership.
It is an immutable fact of life within the force that only people who do what they are told, don’t ask questions and undertake actions solely designed to please management will succeed within the job. These are the only criteria that matter.
Loyalty — blind, subservient loyalty — is utterly paramount. Attributes such as ability or intelligence are not only not required or deemed desirable, they are regarded by management as positively hostile traits in a candidate because anyone demonstrating either is not likely to follow orders without question.
Somebody within the force was likely involved in the atrocious complaint about Sgt McCabe. There is little public doubt about this.
This person undoubtedly did so because they knew or perceived that damaging Sgt McCabe was precisely what management wanted to see happen and there is no more morally reprehensible allegation to level at any citizen than the ruinous slur of child-abuse.
The motto emblazoned across the entrance to Templemore Garda College reads “In Scientia Securitas”, Latin for “In knowledge, safety”.
The appalling treatment by that force of one lone member who tried to shine a light into the impenetrable darkness which has steadily corroded the force from within over the years, leading many to resign, reveals that the lofty Garda motto has been honoured by management more in the breach than the observation.
Demanding the appointment of an outside commissioner is pointless as can be evidenced by experience. In 2006, the Government appointed a former commissioner of the Boston Police Department to the Garda Inspectorate. This did not stop the scandals.
What is required is a complete dismantling of the process by which promotions are granted right across the country and the appointment of independent persons, impervious to the invidious hand of Garda management and the cliques which it fosters and protects, to oversee all interviews and promotion criteria.
Only in this way can one ensure that candidates of merit and morality succeed. Shattering the self-perpetuating system of power elites who have dragged the force, about which I care deeply, through the mud over the last few years to the detriment of us all must finally be made a priority.
My understanding of the Policing Authority is that they will deal with bringing an element of corporate governance to the running of the force.
This is all very well but it means that they will necessarily be interacting with men and women who themselves were elevated to positions of power within the force due to cronyism further down the ranks. So the people that the Policing Authority will deal with are the beneficiaries of the very nepotism about which I write.
The Morris Tribunal cost the State €80m. The Smithwick Tribunal cost us €15m. Have these stopped the scandals? Of course not. If the furore occasioned by the Morris Tribunal could not affect massive changes, that tells you something about the strength of the power elites at the top.
Understanding the nature of these elites is therefore vital. These are people who all think alike, for if they did not they would not be where they are.
They are also profoundly anti-democratic in outlook. In their eyes the public is little more than an annoyance which has to be either tolerated or managed, but never consulted and certainly never listened to.
But even though the public pays management’s lavish salaries this does not mean that management regards themselves as the public’s servants.
Quite the opposite. To top management, the public has absolutely no business getting involved in the running of Garda affairs. In their eyes, the public’s role is that of a passive bystander, never an active participant.
There are no circumstances under which management will tolerate the public being active participants in what they regard as their exclusive domain. The public is therefore relegated to the sidelines and are only consulted when an enormous scandal erupts and the public chequebook is required to pay for it.
But management realises that the “appearance” of change must be created. Therefore elaborate ruses are concocted (Policing Authority, Garda Inspectorate, Garda Ombudsman) to allay public fears that there is no accountability in our police.
Meanwhile the nepotism goes on unchecked, resulting in periodic scandals in the same vein as the present one, which are fairly predictable.
So what can we conclude? I conclude that the authority, inspectorate and ombudsman are ineffective because they cannot head off major scandals. Are they incompetent? Are they staffed with people who cannot do their jobs properly? Hardly.
I think it is far more likely that they have discovered that they simply cannot penetrate the brass circle at the top of the organisation which is utterly resistant to all change and all outsiders and that there is little political will to assist these bodies in tackling the problem in the first place.
“Insanity”, warned Albert Einstein, “is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.
The public, from whom all powers of government derive, have a choice to make. We can demand root and branch reform in the manner outlined above and witness a truly revolutionary change in how our maligned national police force operates.
If we do not, if we remain passive bystanders whose only job is to pay through the nose for the costs of endless tribunals, we will, as a nation, have collectively lapsed into our own peculiar form of insanity.
In such an eventuality we will only have ourselves to blame.