GERARD HOWLIN: The instincts for self-preservation by our institutions are astonishing

Like the sex lives of football players, we all want to handle a currency we can trade-up in, writes Gerard Howlin

AS GOSSIP and backstabbing go, Gardaí, clergy, and politics, are foie gras. Deeply rich and best served with sweet wine, it is made by a process of unspeakable cruelty to the goose that produces it.

It is strange, but not so surprising, why it is so sought after. You see, like the sex lives of football players, we all want to handle a currency we can trade-up in. Having it puts you in the know and fleetingly

inside the circle. Civilians, on the outside, are always fascinated by the shenanigans on the inside. And, there is an inside.

Eavesdropping on the conversation between Pope Francis and Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan in September 2018, if either last in-post that long, would be fascinating. He is pencilled in to come to the World Meeting of Families in Dublin and she would have overall charge of security for a global VIP.

Whether clearing out the Vatican or Garda HQ is the softer job, is a moot point. The sniping and gossip in both are world class.

The IFA, the FAI, and the local GAA club all have a coterie of insiders, who know more than most and sometimes, like too much being on the committee. The less at stake, frequently the more vicious it is. In the real world, when the inside is an institution like the Gardaí or the Church, it gets serious indeed.

These are powerful institutions and if you are on the inside, it is your life’s work. To make matters more complicated, that work is supposed to be your vocation. Expected standards are always hard to live up to.

You can stomp off the village committee in disgust, tell ’em what you think of them, and get on with your life. Funny thing is that in the Gardaí, the Church, or politics, the job probably is your life. You will find it hard, moving on.

The instincts for self-preservation by our institutions are astonishing

The DNA of the worm in the apple, the insidious spoiling part of culture in any organisation is claustrophobia caused by enclosure. Once the central reference of an organisation becomes internalised, the rot sets in.

No organisation exists except to serve a higher purpose, to be more than the sum of its parts. Over time, inured by habit, reinforced by a splayed esprit de corp, it turns self- serving. A common, critical characteristic is the absence of new blood, or a different perspective, at the top.

Our civil service is a milder example of the canker. Long accessed from the bottom up only and overwhelmingly populated by officials who spent their entire career in a single department, at its worst it was a series of disconnected silos.

If change is in progress, the caricature is still too true. Still it has to be recognised that there is some change. A small number of recruits to more senior posts are percolating through. Accountability has increased, somewhat.

However, the fact remains that managers in the civil service are notoriously reluctant to manage staff reporting to them, if it involves any punitive action. It’s alien to the culture they have almost invariably come up through and benefited from.

Patronage by and cliqueness around more senior officials is a byword for advancement.

Of course civil service gossip, especially the dry laconic sort, that stops just short of downright disrespect, but leaves an unmistakable inference hanging like cheap perfume around the reputation of its target, can be devastating at its best.

The concept of a unified senior civil service, where the upper ranks are transferrable between departments, and even in and out of public bodies, if a very long way off.

Every spurt for reform, is watered down, served in sips, and allowed to make incremental progress only. Living cheek by jowl, in the upper echelons at least, with the hurly burly of politics, there is a worldliness which an on-form Pope Francis could shame.

The instincts for self-preservation by the institutions are astonishing.

Civil servants, compared to clerics or Gardaí exist in a nirvana of transparency. Everyone, without exception enters the Gardaí on the same basis, at the bottom. Nobody reaches the top, except by the very same, trampled route.

Most of cobblestones you walk over are the diminished reputation of your colleagues. Uniformed, disciplined, mutually dependent for survival and an astonishingly extensive family and social community, every one of its fine qualities, has an equally fine tipping point into its opposite.

Until the establishment of the Garda Ombudsman and the very recent establishment of the policing Authority, the force had no effective oversight whatever. The minister and department, being notionally responsible for everything, were effectively incapable of anything.

Some gardaí will be wise and understand that the Policing authority is like the Troika: the best outside governance they ever had. It can empower change, which would and could never come from within.

If I were Nóirín O’Sullivan, I would embrace it with both arms, hang tight, and hope for the best.

Don’t make the call, don’t sign the letter, just send word. That is the exercise of real power. It features in the movie The Godfather, not as a fanciful invention but as a shorthand for power down the ages.

The instincts for self-preservation by our institutions are astonishing

Power is at its most potent when it is implicit. It is already a failure of sorts if it is has to be spelt out. In being denominated, it becomes a devalued currency, especially in an age of instant transmission.

Once a whisper is amplified or worse attributed, it becomes more troublesome for its author than its intended target.

We live in a post-authority age and in a time when the mix of changed societal structure and technology make once insidious, ultimate insider pleasures of gossip, reputationally toxic for organisational structures that once nurtured them like rare orchids in a hot house.

The only thing to do in a room with a bad smell is to open the windows.

It is astonishing, given how hard it is to get in and how easy it is to be put out, that politicians are so lackadaisical about the powers they only briefly enjoy.

Thirty eight per cent of our TDs are new, in the last Dáil 45% were newly elected; turnover is astonishing.

Yet, such is the dependence of nominal political masters, rapidly passing through, on the vested interests of existing entrenched structures, they are loath to trifle with them except in a crisis.

Yet unreformed, those same structures contribute to results that accelerate the turnover and reputational decline, of the politicians, supposedly in charge.

The instincts for self-preservation by our institutions are astonishing

There are reasons why Nóirín O’Sullivan should succeed. More importantly, it is essential she succeeds for the right reasons alone. She must destroy the culture she succeeded within, to survive.

Making change permanent requires an influx of new people, civilian and police, as a permanent feature of An Garda Siochána.

If she is still on the red carpet when Pope Francis arrives, she can then give a venerable Jesuit lessons in the exercise of power.

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