No blue horizon for An Garda Síochána

Changes in the force have been at a snail’s pace, and met with a degree of resistance from members that is more associated with children, writes Michael Clifford

No blue horizon for An Garda Síochána

THESE are tough times for the gardaí. Tough for those who have invested their careers in the force. Tough for those who have given the best years of their life to policing. Tough for the young men and women who have recently joined up, brimming with energy and idealism.

Currently, much of the focus on the travails of An Garda Siochana is directed at Nóirín O’Sullivan. Yet she could well argue that her biggest problem is dumb luck. If she had been commissioner at any other time in the force’s history, she might well be considered to be doing a fine job.

Her dumb luck is largely attributable to the reality that the force is in a state of trauma. Ms O’Sullivan may well be a carrier of this condition, but the symptoms are a succession of scandals over the last few years. The condition of trauma itself is down to the eternally simple yet frustratingly complicated business of change.

An Garda Siochana has for more than a decade been on the road to change. Much of the journey has been travelled at snail’s pace, with regular pit stops, and sometimes with a degree of resistance from members that is more associated with children of very tender years.

Right now, the force has reached a critical juncture. Decades of operating as a law onto themselves have gradually been unearthed to wreak havoc on the well-being of its corporate psychology.

The road to change opened up with the Garda Siochana Act 2005. This was largely put together using various recommendations from the reports of the Morris Tribunal. If not yet, then in time Morris will come to be seen as having been a major catalyst in the evolution of the force. Morris was set up to examine corruption in the Donegal division. The chairman, Frederick Morris, concluded that what the tribunal had discovered in the north-west county was probably typical of the force as a whole.

“An Garda Siochana is losing its character as a disciplined force,” he wrote. “Ultimately the gradual erosion of discipline within An Garda Siochana is a developing situation that will, sooner or later, lead to disaster.” There had been other inquiries and tribunals going back more than 30 years that had studiously avoided the same conclusion. There had been some excellent management reports which laid out a way forward for the force, but they also were ignored.

For instance, in 1996 a body called the Garda Deployment Inter-departmental group report recommended a large degree of civilianisation within the force. Sure, everybody thought it was a fine idea, and wouldn’t it be great and what have you, and top brass in the force smiled and said no problem at all. And it never happened because senior management didn’t want it to happen.

The following year, a document called the Report of the Steering Group on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of the Garda Siochana had a whole range of recommendations on how to improve the force. Senior management smiled and said, sure that’s great and leave it with us.

Nothing was done. Last year, in a speech to the Magill Summer School, the head of the Garda Inspectorate Bob Olsen reflected on what might have been had that and other similar reports been acted on.

“The Inspectorate is of the opinion that many of the previous policing issues that resulted in inquiries, tribunals and government reports could have been minimised or avoided if the recommendations made in those reports had been implemented and some fundamental changes made,” he said.

Instead of acting on a succession of reports, everybody had to wait for the fall-out from the scandals that engulfed policing in Donegal in the late 1990s.

The Minister for Justice of the day Michael McDowell brought in the 2005 act. (There is irony in McDowell’s then role, as years later he effectively exposed shortcomings in the law in his capacity as legal advisor to Sergeant Maurice McCabe).

The most far-reaching aspect of the new law was the introduction of oversight bodies, the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) and the Garda Inspectorate. For the first time in its history, the force had to answer to somebody other than political masters who, let’s face it, were always only too willing to have the wool pulled over their eyes when it came to policing.

The new regime did not bed down comfortably. For years after its introduction in 2007, GSOC has had to face some fierce resistance when investigating any wrongdoing. The garda staff association effectively declared war on GSOC, accusing it of treating members like criminals.

The Inspectorate produced some fine reports. Everybody said the reports were great and then management said leave it with us and we’ll get back to you.

But change was dawning slowly. The section in the ‘05 act dealing with whistleblowers, while flawed, certainly assisted Sergeant Maurice McCabe in his endeavours to highlight wrongdoing.

That in turn led to the beefing up of powers in GSOC and, critically, the accelerated establishment of the Policing Authority. If the ‘05 act will be seen in time as kicking off the major change agenda, then history is likely to attach huge significance to McCabe’s role in hurrying things along, whatever the personal cost he paid for doing so. The Policing Authority, after a relatively timid start, is developing into a serious instrument of accountability.

Twenty years after the civilianisation of the force was first mooted, the results are finally feeding through. The scandal of financial irregularities in Templemore was exposed fully by the civilian members of management.

All of these changes are traumatic in a culture that for decades existed in its own corporate bubble. The trauma feeds down from the head of the organisation into the rank and file, affecting morale in particular. Being accountable is not easy when you’ve been unaccountable for so long. For those who are veterans within the force, this change is even more traumatic.

The resistance, which has delayed change, is evident in the length of time that it has taken to get things motoring at a reasonable speed. It is now 12 years since the Garda Siochana Act was passed into law.

More delay will now be inevitable, with another review commissioned by the Government. This one is to be called The Commission on the Future of Policing In Ireland. Ultimately, all that is required is a good read of all the reports and recommendations that have been published in the last 20 years. Instead, we’re going to have more delay for some chin stroking. It’s bad enough that the journey along the road to change has been frustrated by elements of the gardaí, but the Government, through accident or design, is now lengthening it further.

At this rate, it’s going to be some time yet before a bright new future will open up for An Garda Siochana, irrespective of who is leading them out of perdition.

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