FERGUS FINLAY: Commissioner trapped in a culture she simply cannot change alone

It’s going to be like the football premiership, with managers on a permanent merry-go-round, writes Fergus Finlay

HOW do you reform the Garda Síochána? That’s easy, isn’t it? Fire the commissioner, appoint a foreigner, and the job is done.

Instantly, any doubts or reservations we might have about some of the things that have happened in the organisation would disappear. Mistreatment of whistle blowers? Falsification of breath-test results? Mismanagement of funds? Sure that all happened in the past. Nothing to see here now. The new guy (or woman, but don’t hold your breath for that), will have it all sorted overnight. Any problem or history of culture or systems will disappear the minute we sack the commissioner.

Except it won’t. Because there’s a lazy consensus in place right now. Nóirín O’Sullivan has gone through her career with a cast-iron reputation as a good cop. More than that, as a brave and tough cop, dedicated to putting bad guys behind bars. Suddenly, she’s a bad cop.

How did that happen? Well, of course, bad things have happened on her watch. She’s been blamed for them all, and she’s been blamed too for having, it appears, a bad relationship with the Police Authority.

Maybe, just maybe, it has happened too because a new commissioner took on an under-strength, under-resourced force with already low morale and an inbuilt defensive and closed structure and culture. It was under-strength then and it’s under-strength still. Change comes slowly in an organisation with those characteristics —God knows we have loads of examples of that throughout the public service (without too many people calling for the head at the top).

Maybe, just maybe, it has happened too because the new commissioner was a woman. My colleague Terry Prone wrote here yesterday about the automatic sexism directed at any woman at the top of an organisation. She didn’t mention Nóirín O’Sullivan, but she could have. Or she could have mentioned Hilary Clinton. Wouldn’t you love to know, especially given the margins involved, how many voters in the USA simply couldn’t stomach the idea of a woman president? And look what they opted for instead.

I don’t know Nóirín O’Sullivan. I’ve never had any dealings with her, although I’ve met her a few times at functions. I’ve formed an impression of someone who is honest and determined and likeable (likeable, of course, is not a characteristic that will ultimately save a public figure). But she seems determined in particular to establish that she is capable of running a police force that commands respect, and determined to prove her worth. And, I guess, her innocence of some of the accusations levelled against her. Of course it is the case that the person at the top of any organisation has to ultimately carry the can for things that go wrong. And it is equally the case that some of the things that have happened in An Garda Síochána are both shocking and disturbing. The falsification of data and the mishandling of public money in Templemore are entirely indefensible (as the commissioner has readily accepted).

The abuse of whistleblowers, now the subject of a commission of enquiry, is the most serious of the things we need to get to the bottom of. Maurice McCabe will, I believe, emerge from that commission with his reputation enhanced and secure. But whose reputation will be damaged or destroyed?

It may be the case that when that commission reports, Nóirín O’Sullivan will have to resign in disgrace. But it may equally be the case that in the aftermath of the report, we will realise that she too has been done an injustice. We won’t know until we see that report.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that she gives up the fight, for one reason or another. What then? A new commissioner, with a mandate for reform. And that new commissioner will immediately discover that the ingrained cultural and structural issues will destroy them too. It’s going to be like the football premiership, with managers on a permanent merry-go-round.

Because the fundamental problem is deeper. It goes back to the foundation of the state, and was exacerbated by 30 years of conflict on the island. We don’t have a police service, and we don’t have a justice department. We have a police and security service, and we have a department of justice that is closed, secretive, and defensive because of its obsession with national security. I could give you dozens of examples of how that culture infects the Gardaí and its operations, and more examples of how it distorts policy and thinking. The bottom line is that in the modern world, policing and security need to be decoupled. In Britain, the police do policing, and MI5 does security and intelligence. They frequently work together, but are separate and distinct agencies. The Patton Commission in Northern Ireland identified the core function of the proposed PSNI as “policing within the community” and recognised again and again that obsessions with security, while inevitable in a situation of conflict and terrorism, had distorted that role.

If reform of the gardaí did succeed in breaking that link, and that would of course involve the establishment of a separate security agency, that would be an incredibly healthy development for the force. Patten, remember, made 175 recommendations for reforming of policing in Northern Ireland. The first was: “There should be a comprehensive programme of action to focus policing in Northern Ireland on a human rights-based approach”.

Isn’t that what we need? Policing that concentrates on the needs of communities, that it not over-ridden or obsessed by security cultures, and that is driven by human rights considerations first?

To be fair, that’s what most of us, I reckon, experience on a day-to-day basis. It is certainly the case that in most of my routine dealings with the gardaí (and I’ve checked this with colleagues too) you form the impression of a really professional bunch of men and women. But they’re also bogged down with things they shouldn’t be doing. Why, for example, if I need a new passport, do I have to get a garda who has never seen me before in his life to sign the back of my photograph? Why, if I’m stopped by the garda and discover I’ve forgotten my driver’s licence, do I have to go to another garda to produce it, and have him fill in a big ledger with the fact that I did have one after all?

I’m sure there are dozens more examples of this kind of inefficiency at the ground level within the gardaí.

But what about the macro level? How many gardaí are employed in HR, in financial accounting, in strategic planning — in other words in the day-to-day management of a large organisation. The job of management is crucial — in general terms, it needs qualified managers, not gardaí, to do it.

In short, it may be the case that Nóirín O’Sullivan — who has been more vocal than most about the need for change — is trapped in a structure and culture that she simply cannot change alone. If we’re serious about fixing that, maybe we should start by accepting that shooting the messenger almost never solves the problem.

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