New Garda commissioner faces titanic struggle to succeed

With the weights of issues facing the force, and its reluctance to accept outside influence, the former PSNI officer has a tough job ahead, says Cormac O’Keeffe

New Garda commissioner faces titanic struggle to succeed

With the weights of issues facing the force, and its reluctance to accept outside influence, the former PSNI officer has a tough job ahead, says Cormac O’Keeffe

Drew Harris has a five-year term as Garda commissioner.

That should give him just about enough time to read himself into the brief and be accepted within Garda HQ That might be a cynical view — but it’s one that gives an insight into the reality he faces.

The appointment of an external candidate to the top policing job in the country is a landmark moment. The deputy chief constable of the PSNI will be the first non-Garda to be appointed to the position.

And given the Garda Síochána is both the police force and the security service, it makes the appointment all the more significant Given his background — from his father, an RUC officer, being murdered by the IRA, to his own career in the RUC and then the PSNI — the news is truly extraordinary.

He saw off two serious internal candidates, both of whom were fancied by many observers.

He got the job through an independent competition run by the Public Appointments Service on behalf of the Policing Authority at the request of the Department of Justice.

The import of the appointment is only beginning to be felt. So what can Mr Harris expect when he enters the commissioner’s office in September.

Reading list

He may barely squeeze into his office for the piles of documentation he will be met with and the lack of space on the shelves creaking under the weight of historic tribunal reports.

His screen will be flashing constantly with the demands and ongoing requests of the small army of overseers he must answer to — whether it is the Department of Justice, the Policing Authority, GSOC, the Garda Inspectorate, the Public Accounts Committee, the Justice Committee, the C&AG and various judicial inquiries and official bodies.

Given most of the last three Garda Inspectorate reports are like telephone books in their density not to mention intensity, he could spend the rest of the year just reading them alone.

Then there is the internal O’Sullivan and external Crowe Howarth reports into breath test and FCN controversies.

And he has the ongoing concerns over crime statistics and homicide investigations to worry about.

He’ll be barely able to place his family photograph on his desk than the Policing Commission tome will be out.

The commission will lay out a blueprint for the Garda organisation and policing reform, including desired relationships with external bodies.

As he ploughs through that and digests its implications — including the likely scenario of an implementation body of some type — the Disclosure Tribunal report will land with a thud.

If it finds one or both of his predecessors (Martin Callinan and Nóirín O’Sullivan) were involved/aware of alleged attempts by former press officer (and still serving officer) Superintendent David Taylor to blacken the name of whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe, it will further shake public confidence in Garda management.

His relationship with that management structure is a second immediate challenge he faces.

Acceptance

It has been documented to death that the inherent default mode of An Garda Síochána — particularly at management and HQ level — is one framed, and constrained, by a strict adherence, and loyalty, to the chain of command.

Criticism, internal or external, is met with a circle the wagon mentality and an impregnable defensiveness. Outside experts, and expertise, have struggled to be accepted.

To this day, the heads of Gsoc and the Policing Authority flag repeated and incessant difficulties in getting access to documents or answers. Gsoc is even looking for powers to go to the High Court to direct Garda HQ to act.

Internal splits and silos have become painfully clear in recent years.

This is the world Mr Harris enters. Various garda sources have told the Irish Examiner that any outsider will struggle to be accepted such is the very culture of the organisation.

Though he knows many senior gardaí, it will take him time, possibly a long time, to be accepted and trusted.

Given Security and Intelligence Section comes within his remit, how he asserts his authority remains to be seen. Even gardaí themselves have long talked about the culture of secrecy in that side of the organisation.

Here we have an officer who worked his way up through the old RUC, including the Special Branch. At the Swithwick Tribunal, he was described as having “overall responsibility” for intelligence within the PSNI and as the liaison officer between it and MI5. He was awarded an OBE in 2010.

Strange days indeed.

Even if the Policing Commission recommends Security and Intelligence be separated, that will be an enormously difficult and complex task — one that would take many years.

Given the linkages and crossovers between security matters and security intelligence with criminal matters and criminal intelligence, it is not at all clear how it can be even be done It may be that a hybrid model may emerge (like in Denmark) with a separated (but not separate) security service working alongside and within the policing service.

His own stamp

With all this going on, how will Mr Harris find the time to put his personal stamp on the organisation In addition to the massive structural reforms he is facing and the official demands on his time, such as public meetings with the authority and the Oireachtas committees, he has an array of pressing issues to deal with.

One of them will be improving the relationship with the frontline, in terms of their morale, their working conditions, and their numbers.

He is fortunate in that he is coming into the organisation at a time of rapid recruitment (although posing issues in terms of quality).

He faces dual ongoing threats to the State — from organised crime (including the continuing Kinahan cartel onslaught on the Hutch group) and subversive organisations.

There is no reason to doubt he is not up for this fight, given his record. But it could throw curve balls nonetheless.

Then there is Brexit. This, too, is not new to him and an issue referred to by PSNI chief constable George Hamilton in his comments congratulating Mr Harris yesterday.

Mr Harris’s predecessor Nóirín O’Sullivan was met warmly when she took over and she said all the right things.

Nóirín O'Sullivan in 2016
Nóirín O'Sullivan in 2016

Mr Harris will have seen how that all turned sour and how, like Mr Callinan before her, she was backed into a corner and had to depart Commentators have said he will need to bring in his own management team with him, but it is not clear if that would help or hinder him.

Ms O’Sullivan often likened reforming the Garda Síochána to turning an ocean liner around. One garda source quipped to the Irish Examiner that the ship remains bolted to the dock.

It will be a Titanic effort for Mr Harris when he gets his hands on the helm.

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