Michael Clifford: Old-fashioned stroke that undermines our police force

Yesterday’s hearing at the Public Accounts Committee should set off alarm bells for anybody interested in policing, writes Michael Clifford.

Michael Clifford: Old-fashioned stroke that undermines our police force

It raised questions about the Government’s commitment to reform of An Garda Síochána. Even worse, the evidence tendered suggests that politicians are still, to this day, interfering in policing to serve their own grubby ends.

The matter at issue was the reopening of Stepaside Garda Station. Everybody this side of the grave knows that this was a pet project for Shane Ross, the local TD and minister for transport and sport.

The station was one of 139 closed down between 2011 and 2014 in the first reorganisation of stations since the mid-19th century. In the interim, little advances such as motorised transport and major population shifts had occurred, rendering as redundant dozens, if not hundreds of stations.

Among those chosen for closure was Stepaside. The closure afforded an opportunity for the then Independent TD Mr Ross to promote his role as champion of the dispossessed in the leafy, affluent enclave in question.

When Mr Ross and his band of Independent Alliance TDs agreed to go into government in May 2016, the matter was on the table. Fine Gael could not be seen to be blatantly sorting out Ross, so it was agreed that there would be a reopening of six of the closed stations, to be selected by the gardaí on the basis of need. Once that appeared in the Programme for Government the bookies shut down any betting on Stepaside getting the nod. To the dogs in the street, the whole thing smelt like a ready-up to sort out Ross.

Yesterday, acting commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin told the PAC that the criteria to determine which stations would reopen came from the Department of Justice. The “high level criteria”, as he described it, was to “ensure there was a rural, urban, and Dublin dimension” as well as the general criteria for policing, the acting commissioner said. Why exactly their criteria were to include the location of a closed station, as opposed to the express needs of a particular area, is unclear.

The information in relation to policing needs, population, and associated data was already available to the force from the process used for shutting down the stations in the first place a few years previously.

Despite all that, there was no sign of a report for more than a year. Why it took so long to compile something so straightforward based on data already available is a mystery.

In June 2017, just days before he was elected Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar spoke to Mr Ross and his colleague John Halligan about their respective constituency issues, Stepaside, and, in Mr Halligan’s case, a cath lab for Waterford. According to Mr Halligan, in an interview with Juno McEnroe for this newspaper, Mr Varadkar said, “we will get them over the line for you”.

At the PAC yesterday, Transport Minister Shane Ross was criticised for posing with a poster about Stepaside station alongside Glencullen/Sandyford councillor Kevin Daly following the station’s reopening.
At the PAC yesterday, Transport Minister Shane Ross was criticised for posing with a poster about Stepaside station alongside Glencullen/Sandyford councillor Kevin Daly following the station’s reopening.

A few days later, on June 9, an interim report on the reopening of Garda stations, compiled by Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll, was delivered to the Department of Justice. By that time, then commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan was heavily reliant on the Government’s approval, as most opposition parties were calling on her to resign.

Around then, there was also a kerfuffle over the prospect of then attorney general Máire Whelan possibly being appointed to the Supreme Court.

By June of this year, Mr Ross wasn’t just champion of the dispossessed but also scourge of vested and elite interests through a crusade to reform judicial appointments. He had, at one stage, threatened to block any appointments until his reforms were in place, irrespective of the impact that might have on the public and the legal system.

Then along comes Ms Whelan, presenting him with a problem. On June 13 her appointment was approved by Cabinet. Mr Ross left his principles at the door. He didn’t object. Coincidentally, at the same meeting, the Cabinet got sight of the interim report on the stations and word came out that Stepaside was to be reopened. Mr Ross organised for a photo opportunity outside the station in question: The local boy bringing home the bacon. Yesterday Mr Ó Cualáin revealed that four stations were selected in the interim report, including Rush, Co Dublin, but the announcement on actual reopening was confined to Stepaside.

Mary Lou McDonald put it to Mr Ó Cualáin that Stepaside had been “cherry-picked by the Cabinet”. It was given a green light whereas the others weren’t, she suggested. Mr Ó Cualáin indicated that he had nothing to do with that.

“What governments do is governments’ business, deputy,” Mr Ó Cualáin replied.

“The Department of Justice have thrown An Garda Síochána under a bus,” Fianna Fáil’s Marc McSharry thundered at the meeting. “Told to design a criteria for whatever is necessary to reopen Stepaside for the political expediency that we must engage in to facilitate members of Cabinet,” he said. Mr Ó Cualáin said the report was compiled using policing criteria.

The interim report has not been published, and the Department of Justice is refusing to do so until the full report is completed. This is all getting to be a joke at this stage.

Most observers are of the opinion that the report is a Mickey Mouse affair, designed to give political cover. Mr Ross’s role in all this is largely irrelevant. Politics has always thrown up the likes of him. At least Jackie Healy-Rae had the good grace to go about his self-serving business with a glint in his eye. Mr Ross affects the pose of a man of high principle, champion of the dispossessed of leafy Stepaside, scourge of the elite.

The real issue is the willingness of the Taoiseach and his colleagues to go along with this. What has occurred has all the hallmarks of a good old-fashioned stroke. Except this involved undermining the police force by putting senior management in an invidious position. The stations that were closed were done so on the basis of sound criteria. Now, it would appear, six of them are to be reopened for nothing more than to give cover to the cabinet for sorting out Shane Ross.

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