Before former PSNI officer Drew Harris was appointed Garda commissioner last September there was, at best, a mixed reaction from within the force to the idea of an outsider leading it — especially one who had not navigated the rites of passage studded along the road from Templemore to the Phoenix Park.
No matter how viscerally this opposition was felt, no matter how powerful this manifestation of the insularity that has done the force so much harm in recent decades festered, it was a dissatisfaction that dared not speak its name. As an institution the force had all but run out of credibility. Any public opposition to a new broom would squander what was left of that essential respect.
The courage and determination required by the Government to make such a change-everything appointment should not be underestimated — particularly, as it was not hard to argue that Mr Harris carried inescapable baggage from his time as police officer during the Troubles. That his RUC father Alwyn was murdered in an IRA in a booby-trap bomb attack at his Lisburn home in October 1989 added another layer of complexity to the equation. But the Government had little or no choice.
The appointment of another insider, someone sprung from inside the circled wagons, to replace the second commissioner to leave office prematurely in matter of years was not an option. Leo Varadkar’s government, deeply conservative by instinct and deed, had no choice but to break with unchallenging but failing tradition.
A little over six months have passed since Mr Harris took up his office and though it is far too early to be emphatic it is not too early to be increasingly optimistic about the impact he seems to be having. He may be the catalyst for change but without the support of the considerable number of gardaí who realise that deep change is necessary he could achieve little or nothing; the old hubris, the old disdain for accountability would prevail.
Of course, it may have just been a matter of timing and luck, maybe all of the skeletons had escaped the cupboard. However, figures from yesterday’s annual report from the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) suggest that they may have escaped but that a good number — 49 — that fall within the Gsoc’s remit remain unresolved. The Gsoc received 24 protected disclosures last year, adding to the 25 active at the end of 2017.
Those complaints are works in progress as are Mr Harris’ efforts to get around 500 gardaí to change functions this year. He plans to move them from the clerical backrooms of policing to somewhere closer to the public sphere. This seems entirely sensible and overdue but it is, sadly but predictably enough, opposed by garda representative associations.
Already this week figures showing that the decision not to jail people for the non-payment of fines has been hugely successful. Reform worked. A new HSE chief has been named and is due to take up the post in May and hopefully that person, as Mr Harris seems to have, will have an energetic and determined commitment to reforming our tottering health service. At long last changes seems to be afoot, and much more importantly they seem to behaving.