MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Great Garda soundbites but commission indicates culture of secrecy still exists

Alan Shatter, Sergeant Maurice McCabe, and former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan

While progress was seen to be made in some areas of policing at Monday’s meeting of the Garda Authority, the O’Higgins commission’s efforts to access Garda documents exposed the old culture of secrecy, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford

On Monday, the O’Higgins report was delivered to the Department of Justice. The report is from the commission of investigation into malpractice in the gardaí, as a result of allegations from Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

On the same day, the Garda Authority and the commissioner met in public for the first time, with the former questioning the latter about operation of the force.

There is a symmetry about these two events. The authority was set up in the wake of the fall-out from McCabe’s claims. When he first made his allegations, he had felt the reaction was one of indifference from both the top brass in the force and the political system. After Martin Callinan resigned as garda commissioner, it was felt it was time to bring in an authority as a buffer between policing and politics.

The Garda Authority was to herald a bright new era of openness and transparency. And the force was to be led by a new commissioner, the first woman to occupy that role, Nóirín O’Sullivan.

On Monday, the authority put Ms O’Sullivan and her senior officers under the microscope. Sort of.

A range of areas were examined, including surveys of public attitudes to the force, closure of rural stations, communications, anti-social behaviour and road safety. There was also some encouraging statistics in combatting gangland crime, which has been to the fore in the media in recent months.

But it was the bread and butter issues that formed the substance of the meeting. Typical of the fare was the closure of rural stations. This policy has been controversial in some quarters, but a case can certainly be made that the country no longer requires a network designed for the days of the horse and cart.

“Our focus is on engaging with communities as opposed to bricks and mortar,” Ms O’Sullivan told the authority. “The investment in the fleet has ensured there is adequate transport to reach out to communities.”

On the face of it, this makes perfect sense. The real problem is many rural communities still feel unsafe because there is a lack of visible presence, on either motorised or foot patrol.

It would have been interesting to find out the specifics of how patrols have been increased in the various areas where stations have closed. Anecdotally, there is precious little in some of the more far-flung outposts.

In all likelihood, other districts have seen an increase in patrols, but we didn’t find out because nobody asked. Details such as these are not hard to come by and would certainly fulfil the function of boosting confidence in operations if made public in a forum such as Monday’s meeting. That is, of course, if there has been a real “reaching out” exercise to replace the vacated bricks and mortar.

Road safety is another area that affects most all citizens. Recent report about staffing in the traffic bureau was touched on. In response, Ms O’Sullivan gave no specifics as to whether numbers would be beefed up.

What did emerge is that there have been more detections for drink driving in the first quarter this year — 1,833 — than for the corresponding period last year, when the figure was 1,765.

How come there was more drink driving detected with less staff and fewer checkpoints? The question was never asked.

None of which is to say that the gardaí are not doing a good job, it’s just that we still don’t really know. Maybe the authority is just getting going. Time will tell.

The O’Higgins report is largely about the past. The main body of the report examines a dozen instances of garda investigation which McCabe had complained were not done properly. To a large extent, retired High Court judge Kevin O’Higgins found that the public were poorly served by the investigations.

The most serious of these concerned Jerry McGrath, a violent offender who was released on bail on a charge of false imprisonment of a child, while he was already on bail for a serious assault of a woman in Cavan a few months previously. Ten days after his second successful bail application, McGrath murdered Sylvia Roche Kelly in December 2007.

Could that or the other cases where poor and shoddy police work ill-served the public be repeated in this bright, new shining era?

What we do know from the O’Higgins report is that openness and transparency were slow coming to the inquiry. The report ruled that the discovery of documents by the force to the inquiry was “unhelpful and frustrating”. That is not from the bad old past, but from just a few months ago, well into the new era. What it demonstrates is that while there was some great soundbites about openness and transparency at the authority meeting in public, the same fidelity to laudable ideals was obviously not evident behind the closed doors of a commission of investigation.

The other issue that arises from O’Higgins is whether the malpractice examined was exception or rule. Was it just a coincidence that, in the Bailieborough district of Co Cavan, there was an officer who was willing to stick his head above the parapet? Could it be that in all other districts everything is largely hunky-dory?

While there was some terrific management speak at the Garda Authority meeting, it is the quality of district officers that still largely determines how the force operates in particular districts.

There are plenty of good senior cops who ensure that the best practice ensues.

But the notion that there has been a transformation within the force, ensuring that the old, often bad way of doing things is now past, hardly stands up to scrutiny.

There are a raft of external factors — most prominently the recent recession — which have put serious pressure on a force to do more with less resources and attempt to maintain morale at the same time. But it remains to be seen whether any real cultural changes have been effected to ensure that we don’t have more O’Higgins reports into the future.

A little done, a lot more to do.


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