Olson’s remarks are to be welcomed for their refreshing openness
Critical commentary in public a break from muzzled Garda culture
The process by which senior Garda officers are appointed is at the heart of it. All appointments from superintendent and higher are made by the Government.
On the face of it, comments by the head of the Garda Inspectorate, Bob Olson, yesterday were less than sensational.
He was frank and honest but there was nothing in there to bring down the Government or even to clear the front pages for. What was refreshing about his remarks was that they were made at all.
There is no debate whatsoever in the Republic from people involved in policing; not in operational matters (which understandably require privacy), but in policing policy and procedure.
The process by which senior Garda officers are appointed is at the heart of it. All appointments from superintendent and higher are made by the Government. It means anyone bright and ambitious enough to fix their eye on a place in the senior ranks learns very early in their careers to keep their mouths closed for fear of rocking the boat and blocking their advancement.
Even in forums such as joint policing committees, specifically designed for open discussion while engaging with the public, the expression of any opinion by a senior garda on the most benign matter would be regarded as wild within the force.
Annual delegate conferences of superintendents’ and chief superintendents’ staff bodies are held behind closed doors. While members of the media are invited, they must hang around on the fringes for a few well-rehearsed quotes.
It is regarded as absolutely out of the question that anyone outside the organisation could hear anybody inside it express a frank view on the record. The media is off limits, a fact made very clear to Garda members in their code of conduct. Members of the force who speak to journalists are committing a criminal offence under disclosure of information provisions in draconian legislation introduced by the then minister for justice Michael McDowell.
It is easier for journalists in Ireland to ring a police officer in the United States and other jurisdictions to get a quote or opinion than to extract the same from gardaí.
Code of silenceCrime correspondents and regional reporters enjoy a range of Garda contacts that ensures a flow of usually reliable information. But nobody in An Garda Síochána ever says anything they have to stand over. The Garda and political culture and constraints beats it into them they must never speak publicly.
Bob Olson yesterday painted a picture of a force out of step with its international counterparts when it comes to resources. But if the dysfunctional system of Garda oversight is to be addressed and if the Garda is to become less insular and more transparent, the force needs to be unmuzzled.