Varadkar and Flanagan need to learn from mistakes of Ahern and McDowell

FF-PD coalition had golden opportunity to reform the Garda in 2005 but they blew it

Bertie Ahern and Michael McDowell: their Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition was in office when the Morris tribunal reported in 2005. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA

Bertie Ahern and Michael McDowell: their Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition was in office when the Morris tribunal reported in 2005. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA

 

The last time the Garda Síochána was in the kind of trouble it is in now, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats were in office.

Everyone was so shocked at the findings of the Morris tribunal that there was almost unlimited scope for far-reaching Garda reforms.

The government had a huge opportunity, but it blew it by being weak-kneed when backbone was needed.

If Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan cannot now do better than Bertie Ahern and Michael McDowell did 12 years ago, the Garda may slip beyond a point of no return.

The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition was in office when the Morris tribunal reported in 2005. It examined corruption in the Donegal division but believed the cultural problems it unearthed were national. It was damning of the Garda, uncovering widespread issues.

McDowell initially seemed like a man with a hunger for change and the bravery to force it through. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) and Garda Inspectorate were provided for under his Garda Síochána Act 2005.

Gsoc would independently investigate complaints made by the public against gardaí. And the inspectorate would examine the many facets of Irish policing; identifying shortcomings and mapping out the reforms needed to correct them.

It all sounded great.

So weak

But the Act was so weak it effectively left it up to the Garda to decide how seriously it wanted to take its new friends. For example, when the Garda refused or delayed in surrendering documents and other evidence to Gsoc, the ombudsman did not have the power to bypass the Garda. It could not log on to the Garda’s computer database to search for information that might aid its inquiries and it could not go to court and obtain an order forcing compliance.

Instead, it had to go to the Garda, the very organisation it was set up to investigate; explaining what it was investigating and asking nicely if it would mind surrendering the evidence sought.

And when it came to the inspectorate, the Garda was not compelled to act on its recommendations. The force, even though it was in crisis at the time, could take or leave the changes that were being suggested.

Thus, in the absence of any form of compellability, most of the inspectorate’s recommendations down the years were not acted on.

Indeed, the modernisation and reform programme introduced by the now former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan to try and move the force forward is based on the very Garda Inspectorate recommendations that were never acted on.

Ineffective

Aside from creating two Garda oversight bodies that were weak to the point of being ineffective, McDowell and his coalition colleagues did not have the vision to act on other recommendations at the time.

Many of those were put forward by something called the “Advisory Group on Garda Management and Leadership Development”.

The ideas contained in a report it produced are now 12 years old. But in a mark of how spectacularly the FF-PD coalition blew its chance to reform the Garda, they still seem fresh.

The group noted that with only one way into the Garda – as a recruit – there was scope for the force to become a closed culture “isolated from mainstream developments”.

To avoid this, the advisory group recommended more foreign nationals joining the Garda and for members of the force to be encouraged to serve terms overseas to gain experience.

It also suggested international candidates should be allowed to apply for senior Garda posts, including that of commissioner.

“This would, from time to time, provide for an influx of new blood and new ideas,” it said.

‘Risible’

The report’s authors described as “risible” a 21-year plan put forward by the Garda to civilianise a small number of posts.

The private sector would achieve the same goal in 21 weeks, they said. And any good business would also have performance measurement systems in place.

The group believed its recommendations would help to bring about an organisation with a culture of accountability. Not to mention one in which a professional public service was provided by gardaí and civilians unified under strong, progressive management.

Back in 2005, the advisory group insisted the time of talking about Garda reform was over. “We do not see the need for extensive consultancy reports; what is needed now is action.”

Sounds familiar.