O’Sullivan faces huge challenge to renew force

A new Garda Commissioner

Nóirin O’Sullivan is to be congratulated on her appointment as Garda Commissioner, an appointment that means every senior position in our justice system is held by a woman. This milestone, one reached after an international competition, symbolises a significant change in culture that Commissioner O’Sullivan will try to replicate throughout An Garda Síochana.

Ms O’Sullivan had been acting as interim Commissioner since her predecessor Martin Callinan stepped down, in controversial circumstances, last March. Those difficult circumstances, which also ended the ministerial career of Alan Shatter, will to a very large degree define the challenge faced by the new Commissioner — rebuilding public confidence in the force, restoring garda morale and changing the perceived culture of insularity and the lack of accountability identified in a series of reports, including a critical one from the Garda Inspectorate, that have so damaged the organisation.

A career police officer Ms O’Sullivan has been appointed despite suggestions, and some very strong arguments, that a person from outside of the force might be best placed to drive cultural change in a force that no longer enjoys the authority it and the great majority of citizens would wish it had.

It has been terribly damaged by the penalty points controversy and the very inappropriate response to the brave gardaí who brought the scandal to the attention of senior officers. That penalty points were were struck out by a minority of garda officers after an investigation into the scandal had begun indicates the very great scale of the challenge facing Ms O’Sullivan and her senior officers.

That challenge will be made all the greater because, as she is a product of the system she must remake, she will face considerable and probably some unforgiving scrutiny. That scrutiny will be sharpened by the growing perception that it is all but impossible to instigate significant change in how we conduct our public affairs. The establishment of the Policing Authority, and the demands it will undoubtedly put in place, will also influence her work in a way unknown to her predecessors.

There have been very plausible and valuable suggestions too about how the force might be realigned with the public it serves and protects. One of those, and it is one with more than a ring of truth to it, is that the cocoon-like garda training centre in Templemore has become outdated and that recruits should be exposed to their contemporaries at some of the country’s third-level institutions. Another is that there might be a new career path for at least some officers and that a cadet scheme, like the one used by the army and the navy, might have a role to play. At this point the details are almost irrelevant. The priority must be rebuilding a force the great majority of citizens and gardaí can admire. Let us all hope that the new Commissioner succeeds in that urgent task.


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