In danger of becoming a spent force - Need for Garda Síochána reform

THE row over the Taoiseach’s handling of the premature retirement of former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan is, in many ways, a diversion from the urgent need for major root and branch reform of the Garda Siochána and our criminal justice system in general.

The interim report by Mr Justice Fennelly reveals a number of serious shortcomings in the operation of the force and in how senior management relate to the Department of Justice and the office of the Attorney General.

The report finds that although the Attorney General Máire Whelan considered that she had discovered, in the spring of last year, a matter of the gravest possible public concern regarding the gardaí and believed it warranted being raised with the Taoiseach, “no contact was made with nor inquiry made of either of the two people most obviously concerned and responsible”.

The two people referred to were the then Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Callinan himself.

In her evidence to the commission, Whelan said it was her impression that senior garda management were very proprietorial of their relationship with the Department of Justice. “My impression certainly would be that it would be not very well received if there was any intervention directly by my office,” she said, adding that if she dealt directly with the Garda Commissioner on the issue, she believed that she would be undermining the then Justice Minister Alan Shatter.

It seems extraordinary that the Government’s most senior law officer, who attends Cabinet meetings, should feel constrained in such a manner by the demeanour of both Garda management and the Minister for Justice.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that ordinary gardaí — among them whistleblowers — should have felt reticent about exposing wrongdoings within the force?

There has been misgivings about the culture of bullying and harassment evident in the Garda Siochána for decades.

There have been numerous incidents of corruption, harassment and intimidation which have significantly compromised the reputation of the gardaí over the years.

Ten years ago, former Justice Minister Michael McDowell promised significant reform of the Garda Siochána, but all he managed to do was to make management structures more centralised than ever and to close down many rural Garda stations.

When Noirín O’Sullivan took over as Garda Commissioner the impression was that here, at last, was someone who would invest time, energy and imagination in transforming the force in a way that would include the management, delivery and oversight of Garda policy.

Likewise, the appointment of Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald who promised a ‘sea change’ in policing.

There is little sign of it, so far.

The danger is that, without real reform, the Garda Siochána could go the way of the RUC in the North and become a spent force.

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