THERE is a time-bomb ticking under the Government in relation to An Garda Síochána. It’s not, I’m guessing, the position of the Garda Commissioner, even though her position, from the outside at least, seems fragile. The real time- bomb is in relation to Garda pay, especially junior pay.
Perhaps we should deal with the Commissioner first. I’ve met Noirín O’Sullivan a couple of times, and I have to say she strikes me as someone who is down-to-earth and entirely approachable. She simply has never seemed to me to be the sort of person whose instinct would be to circle the wagons when the force is criticised, but instead to seek to get to the bottom of the problem. I tend to believe her when she says she has never had any interest in attacking the motivation of Garda whistle-blower Maurice McCabe, or in accusing him of malice.
That is not in any way to gainsay the work, which constitutes journalism of the highest possible calibre, of Michael Clifford. Again and again he has raised questions of the most troubling kind about how whistle-blowers are treated, especially in the Garda. And it’s clear that the new Garda Authority are far from happy with the culture they see as prevalent.
And there is now a new pressure, it seems. An internal report in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is basically saying that there should be no new investment in the Gardaí until a programme of reform is well-established.
What all this means is that the Garda Commissioner is living and working under a cloud. She has to prove herself in the eyes of her political and administrative bosses, and in the eyes of the public. There is no doubt that one of the most self-destructive things you can do in An Garda Siochána, still, is to decide to blow the whistle on things you believe to be wrong. That’s not easy in any walk of life, but it seems to be professional suicide in the Garda.
For sure, Noirín O’Sullivan is going to find it really difficult to change that culture – assuming she’s genuine, and even with the full-blooded support of the Garda Authority. But you won’t change that culture by getting rid of another commissioner either. Changing culture, especially when it involves changing a temperament that has been embodied for generations, requires a concerted, organisation-wide approach. It has to be done grade by grade, station by station, rank by rank.
It has to be done without breaking the unity and cohesiveness of the force, and it has to be done against a background of never-ending crisis. The gang murders in Dublin, and the risk of escalation, are only the latest major challenge facing the force. Before the year is out, there will be many more issues in which we will need to call on a tightly-disciplined, high-morale, and well organised Garda to protect us in some dangerous breaches.
In the middle of all that, morale is a key issue. And the crisis in morale settles on the issue of pay.
There’s no easy solution. It probably isn’t affordable, and wouldn’t necessarily be fair, to give a significant uplift in pay across the board in the Gardaí. But there is a terrible inequity at the lower levels, and it is something that is entirely corrosive. It can, and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Not only should it be dealt with as a matter of equity, it would significantly strengthen the drive for reform if the inequity was removed. (Incidentally, much the same could be said of pay at the lower levels of the teaching and nursing professions, but that might be the subject of a different article.) According to the GRA website, a Garda recruit is paid €184 a week. Presumably they also get food and lodging in Templemore. Templemore has 300 rooms, described as single and ensuite, a restaurant, a sports hall and a gym, so I’m guessing time spent there isn’t too uncomfortable.
But if you lose your job in Ireland in certain circumstances you can qualify for unemployment support up to €188 a week. Exactly the same amount is paid to people with a permanent disability who can’t work. Neither is a king’s ransom, but it’s surely striking that a Garda recruit in training is paid less than either.
When they qualify, young gardaí are assigned to their first post. It would be very rare indeed for them to be assigned anywhere near home, so the first thing they have to do is find somewhere new to live. We all know how challenging that is, especially if the first posting is in Dublin. They are put on a salary scale that begins at €23,151 per annum, the equivalent of €445 a week.
If they’re never promoted or don’t seek promotion, they will rise eventually (after 19 years’ service) to around €46,000 a year. That’s if they were recruited after the Haddington Road agreement. Gardai recruited before that agreement will reach the same maximum point of their scale after 17 years.
So the new crop of gardaí — the future of the force — will always remain behind any colleague who happens to be a year or two older. They mightn’t be better, they mightn’t have more, or more varied experience, they’ll just always be paid more because of an accident of timing.
This is absurdly unfair, and as I said before, it’s deeply corrosive. An executive office enters the civil service at €29,000 a year, and gets to the max of their scale (the same as the max of the garda) in 12 years. Nightwatchmen (there is such a grade) in the civil service earn the same as a young garda after four years on the job. Salaried rent collectors start off €3,000 a year better off than young gardaí, and Grade II technicians are €4,000 a year better off when they start. I’m quite sure any appropriate or logical bench-marking exercise would establish that young gardaí, in particular, are unfairly treated – to the point where no progressive employer, or even an employer who has to plan for the future, would allow it.
There are of course other issues, more complex and difficult, in relation to Garda pay. The sight of Garda sergeants and inspectors protesting outside Dáil Éireann about their pay and conditions, against the background of the daily danger they face, surely gives rise to a need for a detailed and in-depth (and independent) examination of the whole issue.
But a government interested in morale and reform would enable the Garda Commissioner right now to take the easy and essential first step. That means agreeing to abolish the bottom two points of the Haddington Road pay scale for junior gardaí, which is the thing that has turned it into a yellow-pack scale.
That would mean that young gardaí when they finish their training would start at €28,000 a year and would reach the max of their scale in the same time as their colleagues. It’s not princely, and it certainly wouldn’t cost the earth but it would mean that all members of the force were treated equally. That would be a further step on the road to reform.
A government interested in morale and reform would enable the Garda Commissioner right now to abolish the bottom two points of the Haddington Road pay scale for junior gardaí