Opposition will miss commissioner who tried to affect change in force

The sooner we stop talking palaver about the decent men and women in the force the better. writes Gerard Howlin.

Opposition will miss commissioner who tried to affect change in force

NOBODY will miss Nóirín O’Sullivan more than her detractors. There is a delicate art in successful opposition. It’s sadistic and lies in keeping the long suffering, suffering. Like the refinements of torture, only the clumsy and incompetent allow the victim to expire on the rack. Her departure is their loss. With housing, health, and a budget which, if it is to be prudent, cannot be universally pleasing, policing was set to be one of the instruments for the opposition this autumn.

It is not gone, but it is removed, for now, into the processes of the disclosures tribunal and an appointments procedure for her successor which is as clear as mud. Those who fancied they would while away the winter playing with Noirín, as cats play with mice, with only the timing but not the certainty of her end at issue, were mistaken. The baited trap has snapped shut but it’s empty. They can now nibble their cheese themselves.

The early retirement of O’Sullivan as commissioner of An Garda Síochána was prudent of her, and probably a relief for the Government. It gives the Government months to hold at bay an issue which, in its extenuated form, has nearly asphyxiated it twice.

So-called justice issues in 2014 cumulated in serious losses in the local elections for Fine Gael. It allowed Fianna Fáil to overtake it in seats and in votes that day. That put a party, on the floor since 2011, back up on its knees, and the scene was set for the 2016 general election. In the interim the dispatch, with something less refined than the long knife usually kept in the cupboard especially for the task, of the former commissioner, Martin Callinan, left Enda Kenny teetering and the reputation of his attorney general, Máire Whelan, damaged.

This is not to mention other political names engraved on tombstones. I think of the former justice minister, Alan Shatter, and that department’s former secretary general, Brian Purcell. Shatter was on the cusp of being a truly great justice minister. Purcell, a good servant of the State, took one order too many.

It must be a generation ago now, but it is not in living memory that an elected government has effectively controlled — as distinct from merely commanded — our national police force. The forms are preserved, of course, but the reality is long gone. The full consequences

of that and all it means are so appalling it has never been clearly countenanced.

It is not that there are problems in An Garda Síochána, it is that it is fundamentally unfit for purpose. The sooner we stop talking palaver about the decent men and women in the force the better. Of course such decency exists and many are exemplary. But a police force must be judged as a body and, as a body, it is neither effectively within the State’s control or credible and competent in the discharge of its core responsibilities. This is not opinion. It is fact.

The facts of the Garda breath-test scandal are too well known to repeat in detail. But the number of such tests was exaggerated by 1.45m over seven years. This speaks of the culture in devastating detail. There are few among us who haven’t taken shortcuts, or been less than exemplary in our duties. But the scale, continuity, and overlap of this with so much else is a black vista. Yet if damning, it is not ultimately fundamental. What is fundamental is whether the State can rely on a force which takes a solemn oath to take its orders. We know we cannot.

The preparedness to strike last November was the summation of everything. However much connivance takes place behind the scenes, it stops short of mutiny. But this was the clear threat of just that. Worse, it worked. Some €50m was put on the table to pay the force to stay on duty. It was Caligula who first paid the Praetorian Guard protection money. Thereafter no emperor could survive for long without following suit.

This is the space in which our State now lies. Only the naive can think we won’t be revisited with demands made in similar terms in the future. It is unacceptable and untenable. It underlines, too, the probably impossible position O’Sullivan was in from the get-go. It is said of a priest chosen to be an exorcist that he must be both fearless and especially holy. Satan knows every weakness. O’Sullivan was fearless, but the demons knew her too well and for too long.

The circumstances of her predecessor’s departure poisoned her arrival. The necessity not just to change personnel at the top but to discomfort all ranks from top to bottom was either too much to bear or more than would be tolerated. Plans for change that move from paper to affect the lifestyle of personnel were never acceptable. If everything else had been seen off by the combined traits of insolence and indifference, why not this too?

The challenge of changing the obdurate was compounded by a series of accusations against her personally. To her credit, she oversaw and leaves a clear and detailed plan for change in culture and practice at every level. Too little is done, too much time has passed, and as she recognised herself, events kept swirling around her.

It will be for the disclosures tribunal to test the most serious accusations. But if her political opponents will miss her, the true test for the Government will be to make the remaining recidivists in Garda management look back on her time as the lawfully appointed commissioner they disdained as the good old days compared to what is coming. Anything less means they have won again, and that we lose permanently.

The Department of Justice, from the Troubles of the 1970s and as far as An Garda Síochána is concerned, handed over conduct of the war to the generals. There was never a subsequent readjustment to the norms of civil society. In the same decades, the surrounding culture changed entirely but Garda culture hardly changed at all.

Modern authority does not come with office or uniform. It must be earned and continually reinforced with voluntary affirmation. There is now a plan for the force to do this. A start has been made, but this is not a police force that is credible or on message.

Its structures and intermediate layers of accountability to the Policing Authority and then the minister are opaque. If it essentially continues in these elaborate new structures, then it would mean nobody is really, ultimately accountable. It is this lack of clear command and an unwillingness to of the enlisted to be commanded, that is the core of the issue.

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